Psilocybin for depression could help brain break out of a rut, scientists say

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Psilocybin, found in magic mushrooms, could help the brain to break

out of negative patterns in a way traditional therapies cannot.

The psychedelic compound found in magic mushrooms helps to open up depressed people’s brains and make them less fixed in negative thinking patterns, research suggests.

According to the findings, psilocybin makes the brain more flexible, working differently to regular antidepressants, even weeks after use. Researchers say the findings indicate that psilocybin could be a viable alternative to depression treatments.

Psilocybin Depression

They say patterns of brain activity in depression can become rigid and restricted, and psilocybin could help the brain to break out of the rut in a way traditional therapies cannot.

Prof David Nutt, the head of the Imperial Centre for Psychedelic Research, said: “These findings are important because for the first time we find that psilocybin works differently from conventional antidepressants, making the brain more flexible and fluid, and less entrenched in the negative thinking patterns associated with depression.


“This supports our initial predictions and confirms psilocybin could be a real alternative approach to depression treatments.”

The paper’s senior author, Prof Robin Carhart-Harris, a former head of the Imperial centre who is now based at the University of California, San Francisco, said: “The effect seen with psilocybin is consistent across two studies related to people getting better, and was not seen with a conventional antidepressant.

“In previous studies we had seen a similar effect in the brain when people were scanned whilst on a psychedelic, but here we’re seeing it weeks after treatment for depression, which suggests a carryover of the acute drug action.”

Psilocybin is one of a number of psychedelics being explored as a potential therapy for psychiatric disorders. The new findings are based on analysis of brain scans from about 60 people receiving treatment for depression, led by the Imperial centre. The team believes it may have untangled how psilocybin works on the brain.

People who responded to psilocybin-assisted therapy showed increased brain connectivity not just during their treatment but up to three weeks afterwards. This opening up effect was associated with people reporting improvements in their depression.

According to the researchers, similar changes in brain connectivity were not seen in those treated with a conventional antidepressant, escitalopram, suggesting the psychedelic works differently in treating depression.

The team say the findings, published in the journal Nature Medicine, are a promising advance for psilocybin therapy, with the effects replicated across two studies.

But the authors caution that while the findings are encouraging, patients with depression should not attempt to self-medicate with psilocybin, as taking magic mushrooms or psilocybin in the absence of trial conditions may not have a positive outcome.

Psilocybin[a] (/ˌsləˈsbɪn/ sy-lə-SY-bin/ˌsɪl-/) is a naturally occurring psychedelic prodrug compound produced by more than 200 species of fungi. The most potent are members of genus Psilocybe, such as P. azurescensP. semilanceata, and P. cyanescens, but psilocybin has also been isolated from approximately a dozen other genera. Psilocybin is itself biologically inactive but is quickly converted by the body to psilocin, which has mind-altering effects similar, in some aspects, to those of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), mescaline, and dimethyltryptamine (DMT). In general, the effects include euphoria, visual and mental hallucinations, changes in perception, distorted sense of time, and perceived spiritual experiences. It can also cause adverse reactions such as nausea and panic attacks.





What is Psilocybin?

  • Psilocybin is a chemical in certain types of mushrooms that grow on nearly every continent. The mushrooms have a long history of use in traditional ceremonies. Some people use them recreationally or to try to improve their mental health, although researchers still have much to learn about psilocybin’s potential uses as a medicine.
  • Also known as shrooms or magic mushrooms, the mushrooms can cause people to experience distorted sights and sounds and lose their sense of time and space. People who take psilocybin may also feel intense emotions ranging from bliss to terror and may have physical side effects such as increased heart rate or nausea.
  • Along with other partners at the National Institutes of Health, NIDA is supporting research into psilocybin as a potential clinical treatment for substance use disorders and other mental illnesses.

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