Psilocybin is a substance found in hallucinogenic mushrooms. According to a new study, it could reduce symptoms and treat severe forms of depression.
Treatments for depression are only effective in 70% of cases at most. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine could offer a new way to treat people with long-term depressive disorders.
During their clinical trial, the researchers replaced the antidepressants normally given to these patients with psilocybin, a substance found in hallucinogenic mushrooms. The results were compelling: two doses could be as effective as the most commonly prescribed antidepressant, but only if patients also undergo psychotherapy. “A psychedelic is more of product that can help the release of thoughts and feelings that, when accompanied by psychotherapy, leads to positive results.” In other words, the psychedelic alone is not enough. Participants in the psilocybin-only study actually felt they had a better understanding of why they were depressed, certainly because of the psychotherapy.
Two doses of psilocybin over six weeks
The clinical trial lasted six weeks and included two groups of people with moderate to severe major depression. The first group consisted of 30 people. They were given 25 milligrams of psilocybin twice, three weeks apart. These doses are strong enough to cause trips lasting three to four hours. Between doses, participants took placebos. In the second group, 29 people also took two doses of psilocybin three weeks apart, but at very low doses that had almost no effect. The rest of the time, however, they took the antidepressant Escitalopram. All 59 participants were scheduled for a psychological therapy session the day after taking psilocybin.
Always followed by a psychotherapy session
At the end of the study, participants completed a questionnaire. According to the answers, the severity of depressive symptoms had decreased in both groups. However, the most surprising result was the high rate of remissions, which is the complete disappearance of all symptoms. In fact, 57% of the participants who received a high dose of psilocybin were in remission from their depression at the end of six weeks, compared to only 28% of the other group. In addition, none of the participants reported side effects. “I think it’s fair to say that the results are a hopeful sign that we are looking at a promising alternative treatment for depression,” said Robin Carhart-Harris, director of the psychiatric research center at Imperial College London.
Still, more trials and clinical work will be needed before psilocybin can be marketed and used as a drug for depression. This is an important issue because, according to the NIH, in the United States 17.3 million adults 18 and older had at least one major depressive episode in 2017.