Active substance in magic mushrooms lifts severe depression

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Psilocybin, the active substance in magic mushrooms, has been shown to lift resistant depression in a clinical trial involving 12 volunteers.

Two doses of psilocybin lifted the depressed mood of all of the trial participants for three weeks. Five volunteers felt better for three months.

The trial, carried out by scientists from Imperial College London, was funded by the Medical Research Council and published in the Lancet Psychiatry journal. It involved only a small number of subjects and there was no placebo involved, which means that the trial is a proof of principle only. 

All participants had severe depression that had proved resistant to at least two antidepressants. They took two doses, of increasing strength, under controlled conditions in a room with relaxing music playing and two psychiatrists to talk to.

One volunteer described the experience as “mostly pleasant – and sometimes beautiful”.

The lead author, Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, warned against taking magic mushrooms in a recreational capacity: “I wouldn’t want members of the public thinking they can treat their own depressions by picking their own magic mushrooms. That kind of approach could be risky.”

Senior author Professor David Nutt said that the regulatory approvals took 32 months, which meant that the cost of the trial per person was much higher than it might otherwise have been.

The researchers could not say if the effect of psilocybin was due to chemical changes in the brain or whether the psychedelic experience helped them the volunteers to see things from a new perspective.

The researchers are now hoping to attract further funds to complete a larger trial.