A new study, published in the journal, Scientific Reports, reveals that magic mushrooms could possibly “reset” the activity of key brain circuits that are related with depression.
The therapeutic benefits of psychedelics aren’t a new concept. It is thought that psychedelic therapy may have originated from prehistoric knowledge of hallucinogenic plants. However, Western psychedelic therapy tests, mostly using LSD, began in 1950s, but halted during the 1960s for social and political reasons. The area of study took a 40-year hiatus, before the FDA put the drug’s potential medical benefits back in the spotlight.
Over the last decade, dozens of psychedelics clinical trials and studies have shown promising results in the treatment of depression and addictions.
Researchers at the Imperial College London used psilocybin, the psychoactive compound that occurs naturally in magic mushrooms, in a recent study to treat depression in 20 diagnosed patients that had not responded to conventional methods of treatment. The patients were given two doses of psilocybin (10 mg and 25 mg), with the second dose a week after the first.
Initial brain imaging was conducted, followed by a second scan one day after the high dose treatment. The Imperial research team used two main brain imaging methods to observe changes in blood flow and the crosstalk between brain regions. The patients also completed clinical questionnaires throughout the study to report their depressive symptoms.
The images revealed changes in brain activity that were associated with clear and lasting reductions in symptoms related to depression. Several participants even reported the benefits lasting up to five weeks after the treatment. This lead the researchers to believe that the psychedelic compound may have effectively reset the activity of the brain circuits associated with depression.
However, due to the small sample size of patients and lack of a control group (such as a placebo group), it is difficult to directly compare these exciting initial results.
Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris, Head of Psychedelic Research at Imperial, who also led the study said, “We have shown for the first time clear changes in brain activity in depressed people treated with psilocybin after failing to respond to conventional treatments.”
Dr. Carhart-Harris also spoke about how the patients had described feeling ‘reset’ after the treatment and computer analogies were often used by the patients. “One said he felt like his brain had been ‘defragged’ like a computer hard drive, and another said he felt ‘rebooted’. Psilocybin may be giving these individuals the temporary ‘kick start’ they need to break out of their depressive states and these imaging results do tentatively support a ‘reset’ analogy. Similar brain effects to these have been seen with electroconvulsive therapy”.
Immediately following the psilocybin treatment, patients reported a decrease in their symptoms, which many reported as an ‘after glow’ effect on their improved mood and reduced stress.
The brain scan images revealed reduced blood flow in areas of the brain, including the amygdala, a small region known to be involved in processing emotional responses such as stress and fear. The second images also provided insight into what occurs in the brain of those who ‘come down’ from a psychedelic drug treatment.
Dr. Carhart-Harris explained, “Through collecting these imaging data we have been able to provide a window into the after effects of psilocybin treatment in the brains of patients with chronic depression. Based on what we know from various brain imaging studies with psychedelics, as well as taking heed of what people say about their experiences, it may be that psychedelics do indeed ‘reset’ the brain networks associated with depression, effectively enabling them to be lifted from the depressed state.”
The team of researchers do note that the research is an a very early state and that those with depression should not attempt to self-medicate, as the study provided special therapeutic context for the drug experience and things could easily go awry if the extensive psychological component of the treatment is neglected.
However, since the initial results were so positive, a new trial set to start early next year will include more robust designs and a plan to test psilocybin against a leading antidepressant.