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Magic Mushrooms for Depression Hit Regulatory Snag

magic mushrooms for depression

Research suggests that magic mushrooms and specifically an ingredient called psilocybin are effective in the treatment of depression. However, that magic isn’t enough to convince regulatory factions to allow one of the leading researchers of magic mushrooms access to the fungi so studies can continue.

What’s magic about these mushrooms?

The scientist at the center of the controversy is Professor David Nutt of the Department of Medicine at Imperial College, London. He, along with his colleagues, have been studying the antidepressive effects of psilocybin (which goes by the chemical name 4-phosphoryloxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine), a hallucinogenic substance found in certain mushrooms.

Psilocybin was once commonly used in psychotherapy, but that was more than half a century ago. Now the chemical is classified as a Class A drug and is illegal in the United Kingdom, which has made Nutt’s attempts at continuing his research a challenge, even though he has funding to do so.

Previous research of magic mushrooms conducted by Professor Nutt that used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of brain activity in healthy volunteers revealed that psilocybin suppresses an area of the brain (medial prefrontal cortex, or mPFC) that has been shown to be hyperactive in people with depression. As Nutt noted, “psilocybin actually caused activity to decrease in areas that have the densest connections with other areas.”

Other research has shown that use of a single dose of psilocybin reduced anxiety and improved mood in 12 patients who had advanced cancer. These benefits continued for up to six months, all after just one dose.

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Professor Nutt’s research findings have been supported by other experts. In a statement from Imperial College London from Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris, from the Department of Medicine, he noted that the research shows “that psilocybin decreases mPFC activity, as many effective depression treatments do.”

Will magic mushroom research go forward?
For now, Professor Nutt stated in a BBC News report that “insane” regulations have made it impossible for him to get the drug so he can continue his research to test the use of psilocybin as a treatment for depression. This hurdle exists even though the UK’s Medical Research Council has awarded the lab a £550,000 grant for the research, which also has been given ethical approval.

However, Nutt has been unable to find a company that will provide clinical-grade psilocybin for his research because such a facility will need to “go through the regulatory hoops” necessary for its release, and those regulations are challenging. He lamented that “if this is an effective treatment for patients then they’re obviously being denied that possibility,” given the regulatory barriers.

According to the Home Office (a UK government department that regulates drug policy, immigration, and crime policy), a spokesperson stated that “We have no evidence to suggest that the current listing of psilocybin as a schedule one substance is a barrier to attracting funding for legitimate research.”

It appears that at least for now, research of magic mushrooms and psilocybin for treatment of depression is in a holding pattern. Stay tuned for further developments on attempts to continue studies into the potential of magic mushrooms as depression therapy.

BBC News
Grob CS et al. Pilot study of psilocybin treatment for anxiety in patients with advanced-stage cancer. Archives of General Psychiatry 2011 Jan; 68(1): 71-78
Imperial College London

Image: Morguefile