A compound in 'magic mushrooms' provides rapid, durable depression relief

Psilocybin, along with therapy, has 'enduring' effects.
Derya Ozdemir
Psilocybe cubensis cultivation psychedelic mushroomYarygin/iStock

After being stigmatized in the 1960s, we are now experiencing a renaissance in the use of psychedelic drugs to help treat depression and mental health issues.

One of the latest examples is therapy with the aid of psilocybin, an hallucinogenic ingredient found in so-called magic mushrooms, which has shown promise in a rising number of small studies for treating depression and end-of-life anxiety.

A prior study by Johns Hopkins Medicine researchers had discovered that psychedelics treatment with psilocybin relieved severe depressive disorder symptoms in adults for up to a month.

Now, in a follow-up study of those participants, the researchers has found that the antidepressant benefits of psilocybin-assisted therapy, combined with psychotherapy, could keep depressive symptoms at bay for at least a year for some patients after two doses given a few weeks apart.

This is especially promising news since existing treatments must be taken on a regular basis, frequently for extended periods of time, and do not work for everyone.

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Psilocybin treatment for major depression

The researchers recruited 27 people with a long-term history of depression, the majority of whom had been suffering depressive symptoms for about two years prior to recruitment, according to the study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology. They next used an established scoring system called GRID-Hamilton Depression Rating Scale to assess participants' depressive symptoms: A score of more than 24 indicated severe depression, while a score of seven or less suggested no depression.

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The overall score for "most participants" decreased from 22.8 at pretreatment to 7.7 at one year after the treatment. Moreover, during the 12-month period, there were no "severe adverse events judged to be related to psilocybin".

"Our findings add to evidence that, under carefully controlled conditions, this is a promising therapeutic approach that can lead to significant and durable improvements in depression," said Natalie Gukasyan, M.D., assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, in a press release.

It should be noted, however, that these results were obtained in a research setting and necessitated extensive preparation and structured support from qualified clinicians and therapists. "People should not attempt to try it on their own", the researchers cautioned.

A growing renaissance of research with psychedelics

Psilocybin can cause perceptual changes and alter a person’s awareness of their surroundings as well as of their thoughts and feelings, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. There has been a growing revival of study with classic psychedelics over the last 20 years, and this is the latest example that illustrates psilocybin's potential for treating a variety of mental health issues and addictions in research settings. In previous research, it has even been shown to increase durable connections between neurons in mouse brains, implying that the brain damage caused by depression may be reversible with psychedelic mushrooms. 

"Psilocybin not only produces significant and immediate effects, it also has a long duration, which suggests that it may be a uniquely useful new treatment for depression," said Roland Griffiths, Ph.D., founding director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research.

"Compared to standard antidepressants, which must be taken for long stretches of time, psilocybin has the potential to enduringly relieve the symptoms of depression with one or two treatments."

The researchers underline that more research is needed to investigate the prospect that the efficacy of psilocybin treatment may last much longer than 12 months. With psychedelics being increasingly explored by scientists in research settings, learning that and more might be just a matter of time.

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