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Could Psychedelic Mushrooms Become a Legitimate Treatment for Depression?

Magic mushrooms might not only be consumed by crunchy followers of jam bands like Phish and Widespread Panic anymore. Turns out there’s more to “shrooms” than swirling kaleidoscope auras and Willy Wonka-like hallucinations.

Shrooms are the natural alternative to the chemical LSD, first synthesized by a Swiss scientist in 1934. Known colloquially as acid, LSD caught on in the 1960s in the era of Woodstock and The Grateful Dead.

Researchers at Imperial College London have discovered that psychedelic mushrooms have properties that can significantly reduce depression.

A new study published last month in the New England Journal of Medicine showed promise for psilocybin, the active ingredient in the mushrooms, to treat depression. It compared traditional antidepressants or SSRIs with psilocybin. And the results may surprise you.

In the study, 59 people with moderate to severe depression, split into two groups, were given either the SSRI antidepressant escitalopram (Lexapro) or two high-dose psilocybin over the span of six weeks. The group that took psilocybin saw their symptoms retract very quickly, as early as the next day.

“Remission rates were twice as high in the psilocybin group than the [Lexapro] group,” Dr. Robin Carhart Harris, who designed and led the study, said. He is head of the Center for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College. “Psilocybin performed very favorably in this head-to-head.”

Psilocybin affects the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for memory, fear, emotional reactions, anxiety and decision-making.

“After decades of demonization and criminalization, psychedelic drugs are on the cusp of entering mainstream psychiatry, with profound implications for a field that in recent decades has seen few pharmacological advancements for the treatment of mental disorders and addiction,” according to The New York Times in a recent article. “The need for new therapeutics has gained greater urgency amid a national epidemic of opioid abuse and suicides.”

Oregon has voted in favor of legalizing psilocybin therapy, and a senate bill has been introduced to decriminalize psychedelic drugs in California. Policies are also being reviewed in New York, Washington DC, New Jersey, Florida, Australia, Canada, and the UK. I’ve even seen ads on Facebook for starter packs to grow your own. 

The New York Times calls psylocibin and MDMA “the hottest new therapeutics since Prozac.”

Euphoric recreational drugs like the chemical MDMA are also experiencing a newfound heyday. Ecstasy, one form of MDMA, was rampant at raves, all-night electronic dance music parties that occurred from the late 1980s until the late ‘90s.

In recent days, ecstasy has been rebranded as “Molly,” supposedly a purer and more powerful form of MDMA that is also used by the intelligentsia. And other hallucinogens like peyote and ayahuasca are experiencing a surge in popularity.

Professor David Nutt, principal investigator of the Imperial College study said that the psilocybin worked decidedly faster than Lexapro. “These findings provide further support for the growing evidence base that shows that in people with depression, psilocybin offers an alternative treatment to traditional antidepressants,” Nutt said. “We look forward to further trials, which if positive should lead to psilocybin becoming a licensed medicine.”

Can you envision a world where antidepressants may not be the best course of treatment for depression anymore? Could shrooms be the new medical marijuana for those of us with depression?

As for me, I’ve only done shrooms once. I was in college and we went to a to see a Doors cover band. I only ate half a mushroom because I was afraid to take a whole one, and it didn’t do anything more than give me a pleasant body buzz. 

But already, with this research and the amazing promise of psilocybin therapy, what a long, strange trip it’s been.

Image Credits: Conor Bezane

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