Magic Mushrooms Ingredient Psilocybin May Treat Depression
More than 50 years ago, a substance in magic mushrooms called psilocybin was widely used in psychotherapy, but it was not until recently that scientists teamed up to investigate it thoroughly. Now researchers have made the “mind-expanding” discovery that this magic mushrooms ingredient may be an effective treatment for depression and anxiety.
Two studies have uncovered the magic
Psilocybin, which goes by the tongue-twisting chemical name 4-phosphoryloxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine, is a hallucinogenic substance obtained from certain mushrooms found in the subtropical and tropical areas of Mexico, South America, and the United States. The average amount of psilocybin in these mushrooms is 0.2 to 0.4 percent, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
In two recent studies, both headed by Professor David Nutt, Department of Medicine at Imperial College, London, the veil was lifted on how psilocybin works. What the investigators uncovered was not quite what they expected.
In one study, 30 healthy volunteers who had past experience with psychedelics were given psilocybin by infusion while they underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of their brain activity. Rather than increase brain activity, as scientists assumed it would, “psilocybin actually caused activity to decrease in areas that have the densest connections with other areas,” reported Nutt.
The areas affected by psilocybin included the posterior cingulated cortex (PCC), which may play a role in self-identity and consciousness; and the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), which has been shown to be hyperactive in depression. Therefore, the fact that psilocybin suppressed the mPFC could be responsible for reported antidepressant effects.
In the second study, to be published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, 10 volunteers underwent MRI scans of the brain while they thought about memories associated with strong positive emotions. They went through this exercise after taking psilocybin and after taking a placebo.
Use of psilocybin resulted in more vivid memories and it also caused more activity in areas of the brain involved with vision and other sensory information. Two weeks after taking the psilocybin or placebo, the volunteers who had taken psilocybin reported positive changes in emotional wellbeing.
Use of psilocybin was recently shown to reduce anxiety in 12 patients with advanced cancer. Patients who took a single dose of psilocybin had a significant reduction in anxiety at one and three months post treatment, and an improvement in mood that reached significance at six months. The study appeared in the Archives of General Psychiatry.
The results of these latest two studies from Imperial College London shed new light on the activity of psilocybin. Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris, from the Department of Medicine, explained in the College’s news release that “Our findings support the idea that psilocybin facilitates access to personal memories and emotions.”
Carhart-Harris also noted that the findings of previous research indicating the ability of psilocybin to improve mood and emotional wellbeing “is consistent with our finding that psilocybin decreases mPFC activity, as many effective depression treatments do.” Thus the potential of the magic mushroom ingredient psilocybin to treat depression warrants further investigation.
Grob CS, Danforth AL, Chopra GS, Hagerty M, McKay CR, Halberstadt AL, Greer GR. Pilot study of psilocybin treatment for anxiety in patients with advanced-stage cancer. Arch Gen Psychiatry 2011 Jan; 68(1): 71-78
Imperial College London
National Institute on Drug Abuse
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