A compound found in magic mushrooms may treat depression better than medication, according to a new study from the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London.
The study is the most meticulous of its kind to assess the therapeutic potential of a psychedelic compound. Psilocybin, the active compound in magic mushrooms, proved to be as effective in battling depression as a leading medication.
The experts compared the outcomes of two sessions of psilocybin therapy with six weeks of treatment with a common antidepressant among 59 people with moderate-to-severe depression.
The study revealed that while symptoms of depression were lowered in both groups, the reductions in the psilocybin group occurred more quickly and were greater in magnitude.
Patients treated with psilocybin exhibited noticeable improvements across a range of subjective measures, including their ability to feel pleasure and express emotions. The patients also experienced greater reductions in anxiety and increased feelings of well-being.
Dr Robin Carhart-Harris is the head of the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial, who designed and led the study.
“These results comparing two doses of psilocybin therapy with 43 daily doses of one of the best performing SSRI antidepressants help contextualise psilocybin’s promise as a potential mental health treatment. Remission rates were twice as high in the psilocybin group than the escitalopram group,” explained Dr. Carhart-Harris.
“One of the most important aspects of this work is that people can clearly see the promise of properly delivered psilocybin therapy by viewing it compared with a more familiar, established treatment in the same study. Psilocybin performed very favourably in this head-to-head.”
The psilocybin group reported fewer cases of dry mouth, anxiety, drowsiness and sexual dysfunction. The most common side effect of psilocybin was headaches experienced one day after dosing sessions
“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,” said Professor David Nutt, the study’s principal investigator.
“In our study, psilocybin worked faster than escitalopram and was well tolerated, with a very different adverse effects profile. We look forward to further trials, which if positive should lead to psilocybin becoming a licensed medicine.
The researchers emphasized that while the findings are generally positive, the absence of a straight placebo group and the small number of participants limits conclusions about the effect of either treatment. The experts also noted that patients with depression should not attempt to self-medicate with psilocybin.
“These latest findings build on our previous research testing psilocybin therapy for treatment resistant depression, and offer the most compelling evidence yet to support efforts towards licensing psilocybin therapy as a regulated mental health intervention. I’m deeply grateful for the philanthropic support that made this trial possible,” said Dr. Carhart-Harris.
“I strongly encourage both researchers and the public to delve deeply into our results, including those available as a published appendix to the main report.”
The study is published in the New England Journal of Medicine.