Could Magic Mushrooms be the Answer to Depression?

You probably didn’t know this, but Canadians are ranked as one of the highest users of antidepressants in the world. OECD, which released this statistic says that as much as 9% of our population is on one medication or other for fighting depression. The study which ranked USA third among 23 developed countries surveyed showed that there were 86 doses consumed daily per 1,000 people in the country. Turns out only Australia and Iceland’s population consumed more depression-related drugs.

There’s more. Researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, have also linked antidepressants to a higher risk of premature death, saying that there is 33% more likelihood of those on the drugs suffering early death compared to non-users. Considering that antidepressants don’t come cheap –with the monthly cost of medicines averaging $30 to $200 per month- it’s clear a more sustainable way of dealing with depression is needed, urgently.


Magic Mushrooms Have Been Around For Ages

Magic mushrooms are hardly a new phenomenon. For thousands of years, they’ve actually been part of religious customs among tribes in Central and South America such as the Aztecs of Mexico. Psilocybin was isolated from the mushroom in 1957 by Albert Hoffman, a Swiss chemist who was at the time employed by the pharmaceutical company Sandoz.

In the ‘60s researchers in America continued to investigate the benefits of psychedelic substances and were actually making progress before the US government classified mescaline, psilocybin and LSD as class I narcotics, effectively halting research on their clinical use. Now, almost half a century later, scientific interest in psychoactive substances has made a comeback.

Between 2014 and 2016 several papers were published in various medical journals presenting encouraging data on how patients were treated for depression and alcoholism using psilocybin.

  • In 2014 a paper was published in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease describing how terminally ill patients were treated for anxiety associated with death by a team of Swiss scientists.
  • The following year, impressive results of how psilocybin was used to treat alcoholism were presented in a proof-of-concept study circulated in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.
  • In 2016 Lancet Psychiatry also reported that patients suffering from moderate to mild depression showed “markedly reduced depressive symptoms” after they were administered with psilocybin.

Clearly the evidence pointing to psilocybin as a highly effective chemical in treating depression is irrefutable. The internet is awash with stories of people who’ve battled depression for decades who are now finding relief in magic mushrooms after trying antidepressants and other forms of therapy without success.


Studies at the London Imperial College

One example is a study, published in Scientific Reports where 20 patients suffering from treatment-resistant depression were treated with psilocybin. The drug was administered in two doses of 10 mg and 25 mg spaced one week apart. 19 of the 20 patients had their brains scanned before and after a high dose treatment. The MRI scans were used to measure alterations in blood flow as well as the communication between different areas of the brain.

After the treatment patients reported an improvement in mood and stress relief while the MRI imaging revealed reduced blood flow in areas of the brain responsible for handling emotional responses, stress, and fear.

The researchers involved in the study believe that during the drug ‘trip’ patients experience an initial disintegration of their brain networks. Once they come down from the effects of the psychedelic these networks reintegrate again in what is referred to as a “reset” of the brain.

While speaking to the Guardian, Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris, head of psychedelic research at Imperial and a lead in 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.”

Patients have variously described their feelings after the treatment as having their brains, “reset”, “defragged” and “rebooted” like a computer drive.


The John Hopkins Study

A team of scientists at Johns Hopkins also conducted a study on the effects of psilocybin on 51 terminally ill patients undergoing depression. This was done concurrently with researchers from New York University Langone Medical Center, who used 29 participants in their research.

The Johns Hopkins team published results showing that psilocybin decreased “clinician- and patient-rated depressed mood, anxiety, and death anxiety,” They also stated that the psychedelic compound increased the quality of life, life meaning, and optimism for the patients.

Roland Griffiths, a professor of behavioral biology at Johns Hopkins had this to say about the magic mushroom drug: “The most interesting and remarkable finding is that a single dose of psilocybin, which lasts four to six hours, produced enduring decreases in depression and anxiety symptoms, and this may represent a fascinating new model for treating some psychiatric conditions.”


Psilocybin Works Differently Than Antidepressants

How psychedelics actually work still remains a mystery from a neuroscience point of view. But one thing that came out clearly from the studies using MRI imaging was that patients’ brains showed reduced blood flow and resting activity after taking psilocybin. The part of the brain involved-the amygdala- is usually overactive in patients suffering from depression and anxiety.

Patients who’ve received a dose of psilocybin display looser connections between their brain networks, which then reintegrate. This could be used to explain why the patients are able to break away from compulsive behavior and rethink entrenched beliefs often linked to depression.

This is in stark contrast to antidepressants which only dull our emotions as a coping mechanism. If anything, psilocybin complements our serotonin system to enhance emotional responses as well as to encourage patients to face their depression head-on.

According to Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris, participants who’ve received psilocybin therapy undergo a cathartic emotional release, the direct opposite of antidepressants, which blunt the patients’ emotions. At any rate, the more traditional methods of treating cancer-related depression, such as antidepressants and behavioral therapy can take weeks or even months to show results and aren’t always effective. Besides, certain drugs, such as benzodiazepines, can actually be addictive.


Corporations Are Getting In On the Act

Finally, it’s worthwhile to note that the corporate world has started investing heavily in psychedelic treatment for mental health issues. One example is Field Trip Ventures Inc., a Toronto-based firm which is in the process of putting up a research and cultivation facility in Jamaica complete with a 3,000 square-foot lab for producing psilocybin mushrooms. The facility will be the first of its kind in the world.



Clearly we’re living in very interesting times, and if the scientific developments cited above are anything to go by, big pharma’s grip on the highly lucrative market for antidepressants could be under real threat.

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