Magic Mushrooms May ‘Reset’ Depressed Patients’ Brains

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When it comes to treating depression, researchers have found that magical mushrooms may live up to their name. Psilocybin, the psychedelic fungi’s active ingredient, can essentially rewire brain circuits that are tied to feeling blue.

Appearing the journal Scientific Reports, the study found that giving depressed patients a dose of psilocybin can reverse symptoms for up to five weeks, according to patient-reported outcomes. And MRI imaging of the patients’ brains confirms that psilocybin changes neural networks in key areas associated with depression and anxiety.

Hallucinogenic mushroom Psilocybe Cubensis, variation Ecuador. Credit: Flickr, CC BY 2.0

“We have shown for the first time clear changes in brain activity in depressed people treated with psilocybin after failing to respond to conventional treatments,” said lead author Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris, head of Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London.

“Several of our patients described feeling ‘reset’ after the treatment and often used computer analogies. For example, one said he felt like his brain had been ‘defragged’ like a computer hard drive, and another said he felt ‘rebooted,’” reported Carhart-Harris.

The study authors caution that the research is based on a small sample size of patients, but they are encouraged by the results, especially as other recent studies have found positive benefits of magical mushrooms, like one that found reduced depression among cancer patients.

The researchers employed two brain-imaging technologies to study the physical effects of psilocybin on a patient’s brain. Using functional MRI imaging, the researchers discovered that patients taking psilocybin showed reduced blood flow in the amygdala, an area of the brain known as the “integrative center for emotions,” which is linked to fear and stress.

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“Through collecting these imaging data we have been able to provide a window into the after effects of psilocybin treatment in the brains of patients with chronic depression,” said Carhart-Harris.

“Based on what we know from various brain imaging studies with psychedelics, as well as taking heed of what people say about their experiences, it may be that psychedelics do indeed ‘reset’ the brain networks associated with depression, effectively enabling them to be lifted from the depressed state,” he added.

Sourcing Past Therapies

The researchers note that using psilocybin as a treatment method is a tactic that goes back centuries, and one that may be beneficial for hard-to-treat cases of depression.

“Psilocybin has an ancient and more recent history of medicinal-use. Administered in a supportive environment, with preparatory and integrative psychological care, it is used to facilitate emotional breakthrough and renewed perspective,” report the study authors in Scientific Reports.

During the current study, the researchers tested psilocybin on 20 patients who failed to show an alleviation of depression from other, standardized treatment methods. Over the course of two weeks, the study participants received two doses of psilocybin – one of 10 mg and the next of 25 mg. The researchers conduct brain-imaging studies before and one day after the treatment was administered.

Related: Ketamine Could Be the Answer to Treatment-Resistant Depression

The blood-flow results “document for the first time changes in resting-state brain blood flow and functional connectivity post-treatment with psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression,” report the authors.

According to Carhart-Harris, the results are similar to other, accepted forms of treatment. The researchers call for additional studies to further explore the role of the promising therapy.

“Psilocybin may be giving these individuals the temporary ‘kick start’ they need to break out of their depressive states and these imaging results do tentatively support a ‘reset’ analogy. Similar brain effects to these have been seen with electroconvulsive therapy,” he said.

Richard Scott

Richard Scott is a health care reporter focusing on health policy and public health. Richard keeps tabs on national health trends from his Philadelphia location and is an active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.