They say money doesn’t grow on trees but perhaps magic does.
Magic mushrooms have a “liberating effect” on the depressed mind, according to new research published in the journal Nature Medicine Monday, which considers how the psychedelic compound psilocybin improves mood compared to traditional drugs, and why it seems to work so much better.
“For the first time we find that psilocybin works differently from conventional antidepressants — making the brain more flexible and fluid, and less entrenched in the negative thinking patterns associated with depression,” said Dr. David Nutt, head of London’s Imperial Centre for Psychedelic Research in a statement to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
Head scans from several dozen volunteers with depression showed that psilocybin, as opposed to a traditional antidepressant — Lexapro, in this case — had more effectively broken communication in regions of the brain associated with depression, while increasing the number of new neural connections in underused areas.
In other words, the brain found ways to reroute itself away from bad thoughts.
“In previous studies we had seen a similar effect in the brain when people were scanned whilst on a psychedelic, but here we’re seeing it weeks after treatment for depression,” said senior author, Robin Carhart-Harris, Ph.D., the former head of Imperials who now directs the Neuroscape Psychedelics Division at University of California, San Francisco.
Half of trial patients suffered from drug-resistant depression, and knew they would receive psilocybin as an alternative. The other half of the pool, who were less severely depressed, were unaware of whether they’d receive psilocybin or the placebo Lexapro.
After treatment, which included talk therapy, scientists also reported that participants were open and less “emotionally avoidant,” and also saw improvements in their cognitive function. The beneficial effects of psilocybin lasted until the study ended, three weeks after a second psilocybin dose. The same couldn’t be said for Lexapro.
These observations coupled with their fMRI scans suggests that the humble fungus could offer a novel pathway for those struggling to break free from depression.
Carhart-Harris hopes to do more research to discover how long the positive changes last. “We do know that some people relapse, and it may be that after a while their brains revert to the rigid patterns of activity we see in depression.”
Their findings could have implications on the whole mental health field.
“One exciting implication of our findings is that we have discovered a fundamental mechanism via which psychedelic therapy works not just for depression, but other mental illnesses, such as anorexia or addiction,” added Carhart-Harris. “We now need to test if this is the case, and if it is, then we have found something important.”
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