A study published on May 17, 2016,  in The Lancet Psychiatry, has found that psychadelic mushrooms reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. Researchers from Imperial College London found a hallucinogenic compound in magic mushrooms, called ‘psilocybin’, which is responsible for fighting against depression. All participants of the study had previously been receiving treatment through medication, but had not shown improvement.

The study included a total of 12 participants — 6 women and 6 men — all of whom suffered from moderate to severe depression for the past 18 years roughly and who were resistant to standard treatment. The patients were given two treatment days — one where they were prescribed a low dose of psilocybin of 10 mg oral capsules and later a higher dose of 25 mg after a week. The patients took the dose in a special room set up with low lighting and music under the supervision of two psychiatrists, who sat on either sides of the ward bed that the patient was lying on. The psychiatrists were present to keep a check on the patient’s health and to make sure he or she was doing fine. They frequently examined the heart rate, blood pressure and the intensity of psilocybin through self-report measures. The participants were then followed up a day after the dose and then at an interval of 1, 2, 3 and 5 weeks and then 3 months after the second dose. They were also given supportive therapy side by side.

Results revealed that the psychadelic mushrooms did not take more than 30-60 minutes to kick in. The peak of the psychadelic effect took place after 2-3 hours and patients were discharged just six hours later. Though there were no side effects reported, nine participants experienced confusion, four suffered from transient nausea and the remaining four complained of brief headaches.

Kirk Rutter, 45, expressed, ‘Both times I experienced something called “psychadelic turbulence”. This is the transition period to the psychadelic state, and caused me to feel cold and anxious. However, this soon passed and I had a mostly pleasant and sometimes beautiful experience.’

He also spoke about how he was initially nervous to be a part of the study but felt comfortable and relaxed after receiving guidance from the team that helped him throughout the process. He also mentioned the factors that contributed to his relaxed state of mind, such as the layout of the room, the calming music and the friendly nature of the staff.

One week after the treatment, all participants showed improvement in their symptoms of depression, with 67% of the patients acquiring temporary remission. Three months later, 7 out of 12 were still depressed but showed a 50% improvement on the Beck Depression Inventory test, whereas the rest of the five were in complete remission.

The research was funded by the Medical Research Council and all patients had consent from their personal GP’s to take part in the study. They were provided with psychological support before, during and after the intervention.

In the 1950s and 1960s, psychadelics and their potential use as medication had surfaced with a study conducted on LSD and its effect on alcoholism. Results displayed that the use of LSD actually curbed alcoholism and showed more improvement than other treatment options. However, due to strict rules and regulations which were enforced later, psychadelic substances were banned from being used in clinic laboratories for at least 50 years and were no longer used in treating problems related the human mind and so on.

The exact mechanism by which psychadelic substances treat depression or reduce symptoms are still not fully clear, and are based on a few theories. One of them is that the drug gives way to those pathways in the brain which are otherwise restricted and thus allow emotions to flow more freely. The users feel more connected to the universe and tend to break out of the shell that they have been enclosed in for so long and thus feel stronger on the whole.

‘This is the first time that psilocybin has been investigated as a potential treatment for depression’, says Dr Robin Carhart Harris, the lead author of the study. He further goes on to say that ‘new treatments are urgently needed, and our study shows that psilocybin is a promising area of future research’.

He also stresses the point that this is by no means an indicator for people to start getting high and picking their own magic mushrooms to treat depression. He understands the risks and dangers of these potential drugs and how they can prove to be risky, if they are not handled effectively and appropriately. Harris states how careful administration is required along with careful screening and professional therapeutic support, even if the use of psilocybin has proven to be safe. Psilocybin is still illegal to possess and as yet has not been approved for medicinal use the way cannabis has.

Further work needs to be carried out on a larger sample size in order to assess psilocybin’s effect on treatment now that it has been declared safe and effective.