Magic mushrooms could hold the key to alleviating symptoms of depression, particularly in those who have not benefited from more traditional treatments, new research finds.
Scientists from Imperial College London, UK, observed significant improvements in emotional responsiveness in a small group of patients with moderate to severe depression following two drug-enabled therapy sessions. The results were published in the journal Neuropharmacology last month.
It all comes down to a substance called psilocybin. This is the principal psychedelic component in shrooms, responsible for their mind-bending, mood-altering properties.
During the study, 20 patients were given two therapy sessions one week apart, both involving psilocybin. The scientists took MRI scans of the volunteers before and after treatment to monitor the drug’s effect on the amygdala, which is an almond-shaped area of the brain that helps us process emotional responses, stress, and fear. As they were being taken, patients were shown images of faces displaying one of three emotions – neutral, fear, and happiness.
This study builds on an earlier experiment, which found that psilocybin can reduce blood flow in the amygdala, as well as symptoms of depression. At the time, researchers explained that the drug had produced an “after-glow” that effectively “reset” the brains of patients with depression.
The second MRI scans revealed heightened activity in the right amygdala in response to images of fearful and happy faces. Yet, it was the increased response to fearful faces compared to neutral faces that correlated with clinical improvements in symptoms one week after treatment.
“Psilocybin-assisted therapy might mitigate depression by increasing emotional connection, this is unlike SSRI antidepressants which are criticized for creating in many people a general emotional blunting,” Leor Roseman, study author and PhD student at Imperial College London, told PsyPost.
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (or SSRIs) are the most commonly prescribed form of antidepressant. These work by increasing the brain’s serotonin levels but can have the negative effect of emotional numbing.
Interestingly, psilocybin works by doing the complete opposite. Instead of suppressing emotional receptivity, it enhances it.
“This suggests fundamental differences in these treatments’ therapeutic actions, with SSRIs mitigating negative emotions and psilocybin allowing patients to confront and work through them,” the study authors explained.
While there are several limitations to the study (extremely small group size, lack of control group, and limited time-frame being a few), the results are exciting.
One of the patients who had taken psilocybin said, “I felt so much lighter, like something had been released, it was an emotional purging, the weight and anxiety and depression had been lifted.”
Another commented, “I have felt a sense of acceptance; more acceptance of agony, boredom, loneliness. [A] willingness to try to accept the negative times – but also an appreciation of the wonderful times.”