Could Magic Mushrooms Help Treat Depression?

Brain scans of individuals under the influence of so-called magic mushrooms have given scientists the clearest illustration yet as to how such psychedelic drugs can affect people, while also providing hope that the active ingredient in this substance could be used to help treat depression.

In two separate studies announced Monday, researchers discovered that the ingredient in question, psilocybin, does not increase activities in areas of the brain that tend to be suppressed by anti-depression treatments.

Rather, the substance also decreased brain activity in those regions, according to January 23 reports by Kate Kelland of Reuters and Stephanie Pappas of LiveScience.

According to Bloomberg Businessweek’s Makiko Kitamura, one of the two studies involved 30 healthy volunteers receiving intravenous transmissions of psilocybin while inside magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners.

Lead researchers David Nutt and Robin Carhart-Harris of Imperial College London reported that activity levels in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), which tends to become hyperactive when a person is suffering from depression, was lowered instead.

Meanwhile, the second study, of which Nutt was also the senior author, found that 10 volunteers who received psilocybin were more likely to recall positive personal memories versus those who received a placebo, Kelland and Kitamura said.

Subjects in that study were asked to rate the changes in the overall emotional state two weeks after receiving either the psilocybin or the placebo, Imperial College London said in a press release. The researchers found a “significant positive correlation” between the vividness of the positive images they experienced and their overall mental wellbeing 14 days later.

The findings from that study were published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, while the second will appear in Thursday’s edition of the British Journal of Psychiatry.

“Psilocybin was used extensively in psychotherapy in the 1950s, but the biological rationale for its use has not been properly investigated until now,” Carhart-Harris, who worked on both studies, said in a statement Monday. “Our findings support the idea that psilocybin facilitates access to personal memories and emotions.”

“Previous studies have suggested that psilocybin can improve people’s sense of emotional wellbeing and even reduce depression in people with anxiety. This is consistent with our finding that psilocybin decreases mPFC activity, as many effective depression treatments do. The effects need to be investigated further, and ours was only a small study, but we are interested in exploring psilocybin’s potential as a therapeutic tool,” he added.

Even so, Carhart-Harris warned against trying to use these “magic mushrooms” to self-medicate depression.

“We’re not saying go out there and eat magic mushrooms,” he told Reuters. “But…this drug has such a fundamental impact on the brain that it’s got to be meaningful — it’s got to be telling us something about how the brain works. So we should be studying it and optimizing it if there’s a therapeutic benefit.”

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