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We're finding out more about how magic mushrooms might one day be used to treat depression

Published by Business Insider on Tue, 17 May 2016

Magic mushrooms, the illegaldrug long touted in popular circles for its"mind-freeing" capabilities, mightone dayhave some real benefits for people with severe depression.That's at least according to several promising studies, the latest of whicha very small pilot study of just 12 peoplesuggests that thepsychoactive ingredient in magic mushrooms, psilocybin, could help alleviate symptoms of depression when administered alongside other forms of more traditional therapy.For theirsmall pilot study of just 12 people with severe depression whose illnessdidn'trespond to any other treatments, researchers gaveeveryone in the group10 milligrams ofpsilocybin in capsule form to swallow (during week one) and 25 milligrams (during week two),alongsideseveral other forms of supportive therapyincluding being brought into a treatment room and consulting with a psychiatrist.All of the patients reported some decrease in depressive symptoms for at least three weeks following their treatment. And threemonths later, seven peoplecontinued to see fewersymptoms of depression. Of those seven, fiveremained in remissionmeaning their severe depressive symptoms did not return afterthe three months.Still, given the very small scope of the study and the fact that there was no control group, more research is needed before we start to see any real treatment regimens that include psilocybin.Nevertheless, the newest researchbuilds on hopeful findings from past studiesof the drug, which hasn't been examinedexhaustivelyfor decades due to tight US governmentrestrictions on studying psychedelics.New links across previously disconnected brain regionsIn October 2014, an international team of researchers (including two of the authors who ledthe present study) looked at psilocybin'seffect on the brain by comparingfMRI scans of people injected with2 milligrams of the drug with people injected with2 milligrams of a placebo.Typically, brain activity follows specific neural networks, like traffic on congested highway routes. But in the people given the psilocybin injections, cross-brain activity appearedmore erratic,as if someone gave all the cars on the highway 4-wheel-drive and let them steer wherever they wanted.But looking closer, the researchers found the new activity wasn't chaotic eitheritformed distinct patterns, or cyclesnew information highways, essentially."The brain does not simply become a random system after psilocybin injection," theresearchers wrote, "but instead retains some organizational features, albeit different from the normal state."Here's a visualization of the brain connections in the brain of anormal person (a) next to someone dosed with psilocybin (b):In essence, the researchersfound that the psilocybinappeared to effectivelysprout new links across previously disconnected brain regions, temporarily altering the brain's entire organizational framework.These new connections are likely what allow users to experience things like seeing sounds or hearing colors. And they could also be responsible for giving magic mushrooms some of their antidepressant qualities, the researchers suggested in 2014.Anotherstudy done two years earlier by one of the same neuroscientists who worked on these two papersImperial College London neuroscientist David Nutthelped him draw similar conclusions.In 2012, Nuttfound that in people drugged with psilocybin, brain chatter across traditional areas of the brain was muted, including in a region thought to play a role in maintaining our sense of self.In depressed people, Nutt believes, the connections between brain circuits in this sense-of-self region may betoo strong. "People who get into depressive thinking, their brains are overconnected," Nutt told Psychology Today. This is what allowsnegative thoughts and feelings of self-criticism to perhaps becomeobsessive and overwhelming. So loosening those connections and creating new ones, Nutt thinks, could provide intense relief.And this latestsampling of12 people lends some credence to that idea.The present studyinvolved six men and six women between the ages of 30 and 64, all of whom had been previously diagnosed with treatment-resistant depression. Theywere given capsules of psilocybin during two dosing sessions, one weekapart, and seen by a psychiatrist the day after the first dose, a week after the second dose, and then two- three, and five weeks after that day.The study author, Imperial College London research fellow Robin Carhart-Harris, said in a press release that he observed no serious side effects during the study, but said all of thevolunteers reported feelingslightly anxious before andwhile they were being given the drug."The results of this small-scale feasibility study should help to motivate further research into the efficacy of psilocybin with psychological support for major depression," the authors state in their paper.SEE ALSO:Mind-blowing new images show how LSD changes the way parts of the brain communicateREAD NEXT:How tripping on mushrooms changes the brainJoin the conversation about this story
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