Could magic mushrooms cure depression?
Researchers at Imperial College, London, think that psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, might have a ‘reset’ effect on the brain that will help patients overcome depression.
I am very sceptical about this research. To begin with, the study was carried out with only a small group of 20 participants, and also linked to psychotherapy sessions. Yet deep down, my intuition tells me the scientists may have made an important breakthrough.
All the participants had previously been unresponsive to traditional antidepressants. Of the 20 who took part in the study, 19 said that they not only felt immediate positive effects, they experienced continued relief from their depression after only two treatments. It was this one fact that caught my attention.
The research team, led by Imperial College’s head of psychedelic research, Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, found that a densely connected group of brain regions, particularly active during introspection and stress, reintegrated and seemed to become more stable after the treatment.
As the participants went through the inevitable comedown from their ‘trips,’ they answered researcher’s questions. Without being prompted, several of them described the feeling of having their brains ‘rebooted.’ One compared their brain to a computer hard drive and said it was ‘like a defragmentation process… things seemed to be working more efficiently afterwards.’
Psilocybin’s effect on the brain’s default network is like ‘taking a system, temporarily scrambling it, and then allowing it to reform.’ This is exactly the sort off thing recreational magic mushroom aficionados say happens. One told me ‘it was as if a veil had been lifted, and even afterwards, I saw the world in a new light.’
Brain scans taken during and after the psilocybin experience show that the ‘default mode networks’ in the patient’s brains did become ‘more stable.’
Taking psychedelic drugs is best done in an environment and frame of mind where the user feels safe and secure and where there are trusted people around to talk with if necessary. It’s always been thought that taking psychedelic drugs is a bad idea if you’re not in a positive frame of mind – hence talk of ‘bad trips’ and unplanned visits to Accident & Emergency. About half of the participants in the study had challenging, even unpleasant moments during their ‘trips,’ but all felt relieved afterwards.
According to the researchers, the benefits of the treatment were immediately apparent – unlike conventional antidepressants that typically have to be taken for weeks before patients notice any improvements. The positive after-effects of the psilocybin seemed to reach their maximum level five weeks later, but there was still sustained improvement in the patients after six months.
These are significant results. After the treatment, the patients didn’t talk about or show the loose, unrealistic thinking typical of depression (depressed people can be quite fixed and rigidly pessimistic.) On the contrary, they were balanced, calm and normalized.
You can’t just tell someone who’s depressed to cheer up – I’ve tried it and it doesn’t work! People who suffer from depression are unable to control their ‘black dog.’ Depression can be addictive – depressives tend to constantly reinforce their own negative thinking.
It is possible that psilocybin and other psychedelics could potentially also be effective in treating alcoholism and other addictions. Unfortunately psychedelics are illegal in most countries and very far from being approved for clinical use. More tests are needed to prove their effectiveness before politicians will be convinced!