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The psychedelic ingredient in “magic mushrooms” continues to reveal therapeutic powers, according to a new study.
In a significant randomized controlled trial, researchers at 11 sites across the US compared a single dose of psilocybin with a placebo concluding that the chemical could have positive effects on people suffering from depression.
The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), indicates that psilocybin (the ingredient that makes you trip when consuming mushrooms with your friends) may offer a faster and more durable solution than existing antidepressants for treating major depressive disorder (MDD), with effects noticeable within a week.
“Psilocybin treatment was associated with a clinically significant sustained reduction in depressive symptoms and functional disability, without serious adverse events,” the study concludes. “These findings add to increasing evidence that psilocybin—when administered with psychological support—may hold promise as a novel intervention for MDD.”
Magic mushrooms, once a staple of ‘60s counterculture, are gaining renewed attention for their potential therapeutic benefits. The study found that psilocybin treatment was associated with a clinically significant sustained reduction in depressive symptoms. The psychedelic also showed promise in different areas, including reduced overall disease severity and improved quality of life.
The new trial recruited 104 adults diagnosed with moderate to severe MDD. Participants were randomly assigned to receive either a low dose of synthetic psilocybin or an active placebo, along with psychological support before, during, and after ingesting the capsule.
In a departure from earlier studies, this trial employed blinded, remote raters to assess patients’ depressive symptoms using the Montgomery-Asberg depression scale (a standardized checklist to determine how severe a state of depression is). This approach minimizes the chances that expectations could influence the results.
So what did they find? Compared with placebo, psilocybin caused a significant reduction in depression scores after just eight days. By the six-week mark, almost half of psilocybin patients showed a sustained antidepressant response, versus only 11% on placebo.
While standard antidepressants can take four to six weeks to become effective, this study adds to the growing body of evidence suggesting that psychedelic therapy may offer rapid relief from depressive symptoms.
Although the study is the largest randomized, blinded multicenter trial to date affirming psilocybin’s effectiveness for depression, it's important to note that psilocybin was administered in a controlled and monitored setting, not taken recreationally. Experts advise that assisted psychotherapy is crucial for maximizing the therapeutic potential of psilocybin, as emphasized by a research paper written by doctors from the University of British Columbia.
No magic solution
The exact mechanisms by which psilocybin acts quickly against depression remain a subject of ongoing research. Some theories suggest it temporarily alters the connectivity of brain circuits, which are often disorganized in mood disorders. This alteration may allow the brain to break free from negative thought patterns after a single dose.
“Something about psychedelic treatment of addiction that is exciting is that the mechanisms we hope it will work are not really specific to any particular addiction,” Dr. Michael Bogenschutz, a psychiatry professor at NYU studying psilocybin told TIME magazine. “It increases the capacity of the brain to change, and therefore for thinking and behavior to change.”
Although the study demonstrates psilocybin’s promise, the authors say more research is needed. While generally safe, psychedelics do come with side effects, although the study did not specifically list headaches, nausea, panic attacks, and paranoia.
The study included predominantly white participants and the authors of the study call for more rigorous, longer-term trials with diverse populations. “Larger recent studies have addressed these issues to various degrees, but report primary end points of short duration,14,15 leaving open the question of the long-term clinical utility of psilocybin for an often chronic condition such as MDD,” the researchers said.
There’s a long road ahead as scientists aim to replicate and extend initial findings. However, the current study marks a major milestone: it provides the clearest indication yet that psychedelic medicine could significantly impact the future of psychiatric treatment.