Imagine if there was a drug that could cure your depression and anxiety and give you a renewed sense of purpose in life with just a single dose. It turns out that such a drug may have been hiding in plain sight all along: psilocybin, the psychoactive compound found in magic mushrooms.
Users of magic mushrooms have long reported that taking the drug can offer mental health benefits, but now three new studies seem to have corroborated those reports.
A small new 2017 study from Imperial College London found that people taking psilocybin to treat depression show reduced symptoms five weeks after treatment. The limited study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, had just 20 participants, so the study authors say more research is needed. However, this early research shows "the psychedelic compound may effectively reset the activity of key brain circuits known to play a role in depression," according to a statement from Imperial College London.
“Several of our patients described feeling ‘reset’ after the treatment and often used computer analogies," Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris, head of psychedelic research at Imperial, who led the study, said in the statement. "For example, one said he felt like his brain had been ‘defragged’ like a computer hard drive, and another said he felt ‘rebooted’. Psilocybin may be giving these individuals the temporary ‘kick start’ they need to break out of their depressive states and these imaging results do tentatively support a ‘reset’ analogy. Similar brain effects to these have been seen with electroconvulsive therapy.”
Two 2016 studies, one from New York University and one from Johns Hopkins University, report similar results and found even more benefits, according to Discover.
Both studies looked at the effects of moderate doses of psilocybin on patients with advanced-stage cancers, individuals experiencing the depression and anxiety that come with the prospect of dying. Remarkably, as many as 80 percent of study participants reported significant alleviation of negative thoughts. In fact, a majority of them rated the psilocybin experience as the singular or top five most spiritually significant, most personally meaningful experience of their entire lives.
Even more impressive, the drug's benefits lasted anywhere from seven weeks to eight months, all from a single dose. That's as life-changing as it gets for patients for whom death is a very near and present reality.
“I have a feeling that I tapped into something bigger than me... it did feel like it was connecting me to the universe,” claimed Carol Vincent, a participant in the Johns Hopkins study, speaking to The Atlantic.
What about the negative side effects that you've heard listed as consequences of many other psychiatric medications? With psilocybin, no serious adverse effects were reported by even a single participant. This information agrees with previous studies of psilocybin over the past 20 years.
So why has it taken researchers so long to get on board with psilocybin? Ever since it got labeled as a Schedule-I drug, the same class as heroin, researchers have largely stayed away. But it has now started to garner renewed attention, in spite of the red tape that needs to be torn off to gain research approval.
Even with the positive study results, it could be years before psychoactive drugs like psilocybin can overcome their stigma and receive approval for medical use. In the meantime, researchers urge people interested in the benefits of psilocybin to avoid self-medicating. These experiments were performed in a controlled environment, the positive effects of which can't be guaranteed for unspecified doses, from unapproved sources.
Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was originally published in December 2016.