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Talking to a therapist is key in new treatment using psychedelics. Compassionate Eye Foundation / Steven Errico / Getty Images
  • The psychedelic compound in magic mushrooms, when combined with psychotherapy, relieved symptoms of depression in a small group of people studied.
  • The new study shows the clinical potential of psilocybin, particularly for treating depression that’s resistant to other therapies.
  • This joins a growing body of research that’s found psychedelics to be a helpful therapy for certain mental disorders.

The psychedelic substance found in magic mushrooms, also known as shrooms, can relieve symptoms in people with major depressive disorder, according to a new study.

While additional research is needed, this study shows the clinical potential of psilocybin, particularly for treating depression that’s resistant to other therapies.

The study was published on November 4 in JAMA Psychiatry.

“This is an extremely important study that advances the study of psychedelics and mental health, but more importantly, offers a new and novel treatment for major depressive disorder,” said Dr. Rakesh Jetly, chief medical officer at Mydecine, who wasn’t involved in the new study.

Twenty-four people completed the study, which involved receiving two doses of psilocybin along with supportive psychotherapy.

Johns Hopkins Medicine researchers reported that the participant’s depressive symptoms improved rapidly, with over two-thirds responding well to the treatment.

Four weeks after psilocybin treatment, over half of the participants met the criteria for remission of their depression.

Dr. Michael Verbora, medical director of Field Trip Health, says the study was well-designed and shows that psilocybin offers potential benefits for treating depression.

“It is nice to see evidence that the antidepressant effect [of psilocybin] is rapid,” he said, “unlike our traditional antidepressants (SSRIs), which take up to 6 weeks to take full effect.”

This is one of only a handful of well-designed studies looking at the clinical benefits of psilocybin, but it inches the field of psychedelic research forward.

An earlier study by U.K. researchers suggested that psilocybin might help people with depression. However, this study didn’t compare participants to a control group of people that didn’t receive the treatment.

In the new study, the Johns Hopkins researchers included a control group by putting around half of the participants on a wait list for treatment.

“The people that were waiting for the treatment were the controls for the people who were getting the treatment right now,” explained Dr. Sudhakar Selvaraj, an assistant professor in the Faillace Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth.

A 2016 study by Johns Hopkins researchers also found that psilocybin-assisted therapy relieved depression and anxiety in people with life threatening cancer diagnoses.

The findings of the new study suggest that psilocybin may be effective for other groups of people with depression.

Selvaraj says the new study should be seen as an “early promising trial that shows benefits.”

However, he says there are some limitations to the study that would need to be addressed by future studies before this treatment would be ready for the clinic.

This includes increasing the number of people in the study, matching the people in the treatment group to the control group, and following people for a longer time after their treatment.

“You need to have a slightly longer-term follow-up to see whether psilocybin is safe,” said Selvaraj, “or whether people have any other problems later on.”

People in the new study didn’t report any serious side effects. But Selvaraj says researchers would want to make sure that people don’t develop symptoms, such as suicidal thoughts or psychosis, or start to abuse psilocybin.

Conducting additional studies of psilocybin is challenging in the United States, where according to federal law it’s illegal to grow or possess this substance without special permission.

Because of the federal restrictions on psilocybin, the Johns Hopkins researchers relied on crowdsourcing to fund their study.

However, there are signs that attitudes toward these kinds of drugs are changing. On Tuesday, Oregon voters approved a measure allowing for the therapeutic use of psilocybin in the state.

If future studies show that the treatment is safe and effective, it could improve the lives of millions.

In 2017, an estimated 17.3 million American adults had at least one major depressive episode, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Some research also suggested that treatment resistance occurs in up to 30 percent of people with major depressive disorder.

“Depression is a leading cause of disability worldwide,” said Jetly. “This is partly attributed to the fact that current evidence-based treatments do not work for a significant portion of depressed individuals.”

However, moving psilocybin-assisted therapy into the clinic may be challenging because it’s more intensive than other drug therapies for depression.

Psilocybin produces visual and auditory hallucinations but can also lead to profound changes in consciousness. To prepare for this, people in the study took part in 8 hours of pretreatment meetings with study staff.

“It is very important that people have prepared for their treatment day,” explained Selvaraj, “so they’re able to process the information they experience better.”

Each treatment session lasted about 5 hours. After taking the psilocybin capsule, a person lay on a couch wearing eyeshades and listening to music on headphones while being monitored by staff.

Staff also met with participants after the psilocybin sessions to help them make sense of their experience, which for many people can be very profound.

Verbora says one important takeaway from the new study is the importance of combining psilocybin and psychotherapy.

“As we see many drug-only clinics open,” he said, “it is likely that more evidence will come to show that drug plus therapy is the superior method to helping patients with mental illness.”

Jetly agrees.

“Psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy is just that, it is psychotherapy that is provided in the context of a psychedelic experience,” he said. “The psychedelic therapies somehow change the mind, making one more receptive to psychotherapeutic intervention.”