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Magic mushrooms could help depression, study finds

April 15, 2021

Scientists at Imperial College London said psilocybin, a psychedelic compound found in magic mushrooms, can help treat the symptoms of depression as effectively traditional antidepressant drugs.

Magic Mushrooms
Experts at a top London university have spent years looking at how the active ingredient found in magic mushrooms could help depression.Image: David Herraez Calzada/Zoonar/picture alliance

A psychedelic compound found in magic mushrooms is as good at treating symptoms of depression as conventional drugs, a small study by British researchers has found.

Scientists at Imperial College London said that psilocybin performed just as well as escitalopram, a widely-used antidepressant.

The findings, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, also indicated that magic mushrooms could have a positive effect on improving someone's well-being.

Robin Carhart-Harris, who designed as head of the centre for psychedelic research at Imperial, told Reuters that it shows "the promise of properly delivered psilocybin therapy by viewing it compared with a more familiar, established treatment."

But experts warn more trials are needed as this study only used a sample size of 59 people who suffered from moderate or severe depression.

What did the trial involve?

Participants were given a meaningful dose of either psilocybin or escitalopram, plus either a placebo or a negligible dose of psilocybin, and then quizzed on a range of topics such as sleep, energy, appetite, mood and suicidal thoughts.

It is one of the first studies, which was carried out over a six-week period, to test the psychedelic head-to-head with a traditional depression treatment.

But the psychedelic drug performed considerably better when it came to measures of work and social functioning, mental well-being and the ability to feel happy.

Can noise cause depression?

Treatment response, defined as a reduction of at least 50% in depression scores from baseline, was seen in 70% of people in the psilocybin group and 48% in the escitalopram group.

Results also showed that remission of symptoms – measured as a score of 0 to 5 at week six – was seen in 57% of the psilocybin group compared with 28% in the escitalopram group.

What does this mean for treating mental health problems?

But Carhart-Harris warned that while these were initial findings, saying patients with depression should not try to self-medicate with magic mushrooms. 

"That would be an error of judgment," he said.

A vendor bags psilocybin mushrooms at a pop-up cannabis market in Los Angeles.
The recreational use of psychedelics, including magic mushrooms, became taboo after initial scientific trials in the 1950s and 1960s. Their possession and consumption are banned in many countries worldwide.Image: Richard Vogel/AP/picture alliance

The Imperial team, co-led by David Nutt, a professor of neuropsychopharmacology, has been exploring the potential of psilocybin for many years.

The latest study was conducted under specific controlled conditions with two therapists and a regulated dose formulated in laboratory conditions.

In 2016 they published a small study showing psilocybin could help ease a severe condition known as treatment-resistant depression.

jf/msh (Reuters)