Psychedelic mushrooms shown to treat depression

A psychedelic chemical compound found in certain mushrooms can ‘rewire’ parts of the brain in people suffering depression, a study shows.

Psylocibin, a hallucinogenic compound found in around 50 mushroom species, has been found to alter the brains of people with depression, offering hope for those who are resistant to treatment.

Usually available only as an illegal ‘street drug’, psychedelic mushrooms have been consumed recreationally for thousands of years, but researched for their medicinal value only since the 1960s.

Researchers from Imperial College London and the University of California San Francisco analysed the functional MRI scans of more than 60 patients who had participated in psylocibin trials to treat depression.

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In the study, published in the journal Nature Medicine, some patients were given psylocibin while others were given a regular antidepressant as a placebo. The psylocibin was a synthetically reproduced replica of the chemical compound found in the mushrooms.

The scans, which were completed before and after treatment, showed greater connections between areas of the brain usually disconnected in people with depression.

At the same time, the psylocibin patients showed decreased connections between areas of the brain that are usually overactive in depressed people.

The researchers say the brain changes led to patients being far less prone to obsessive thoughts.

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The results show traditional antidepressant medication may not work for all those suffering from depression and the researchers say the study will hopefully open up new avenues of treatment.

“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,” says Imperial College Professor David Nutt, lead author of the study.

“We now have two ways of treating depression, which is very exciting,”

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Crucially, the effects produced by psylocibin were measurable up to three weeks after the initial dose, which suggests the brain ‘wiring’ is more permanent and not just a temporary effect of the drug.

“In previous studies, we had seen a similar effect in the brain when people were scanned while on a psychedelic, but here we’re seeing it weeks after treatment for depression, which suggests a carry-over of the acute drug action,” says University of California Professor Robin Carhart-Harris.

“We don’t yet know how long the changes in brain activity seen with psilocybin therapy last, and we need to do more research to understand this.”

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Written by Brad Lockyer

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