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Magic mushroom-based medicines ‘twice as effective as the best antidepressants’ – study

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Aakash Molpariya
Aakash started in Nov 2018 as a writer at Revyuh.com. Since joining, as writer, he is mainly responsible for Software, Science, programming, system administration and the Technology ecosystem, but due to his versatility he is used for everything possible. He writes about topics ranging from AI to hardware to games, stands in front of and behind the camera, creates creative product images and much more. He is a trained IT systems engineer and has studied computer science. By the way, he is enthusiastic about his own small projects in game development, hardware-handicraft, digital art, gaming and music. Email: aakash (at) revyuh (dot) com

Magic mushroom-based medicines could be twice as effective as the best antidepressants for banishing the blues, according to a new study.

Psilocybin, the active compound in magic mushrooms, appeared to work faster and cause a more significant reduction in depression symptoms than a leading drug, say, scientists.

Tests showed the compound caused “marked improvements” in patients’ ability to feel pleasure and express emotions, greater reductions in anxiety and suicidal thoughts, and increased feelings of well-being.

Remission rates were twice as high as for a six-week course of the best available conventional antidepressant.

The small study, which included 59 people with moderate-to-severe depression, involved being guided through hallucinogenic experiences by clinical staff who played specially selected music and offered psychological support.

But the team behind the finding say, because of the small group, their results were not “statistically significant” and need to carry out larger studies.

Depression and anxiety are commonly treated with a family of drugs called SSRIs – selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors – which, as the name suggests, work by increasing the amount of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain by stopping it from being reabsorbed by nerve cells.

Eight different SSRIs are currently prescribed by doctors, including escitalopram – which was tested against psilocybin in the study.

Study leader Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris, head of the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College, London, said: “These results comparing two doses of psilocybin therapy with 43 daily doses of one of the best performing SSRI antidepressants help contextualize psilocybin’s promise as a potential mental health treatment.

“Remission rates were twice as high in the psilocybin group than the escitalopram group.”

Mushrooms containing psilocybin are designated as Class A drugs, with maximum penalties are seven years behind bars for possession or life in prison for supply – making research incredibly difficult and expensive.

Dr. Carhart-Harris added: “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 favorably in this head-to-head.”

During the study treated with the psilocybin medicine – named ‘COMP360’ by its developers, COMPASS Pathways PLC – received either a high dose of psilocybin and a placebo or a very low dose of psilocybin and escitalopram. 

In the psilocybin arm of the trial, 30 people received an initial 25mg dose of psilocybin at the start of the study, followed by a second 25mg dose three weeks later.

They were given six weeks of daily placebo capsules to take; one per day after the first dosing session, increasing to two per day after the second dosing session.

In the escitalopram arm of the study, 29 people received 1mg psilocybin at the dosing sessions – a dose so low as to be classed as non-active and unlikely to have an effect.

They were also given six weeks of daily escitalopram at a dose of one 10mg capsule per day after the first dosing session, increasing to two capsules per day after the second dosing session – the maximum dose for this SSRI.

All participants were assessed using standardized scales of depressive symptom severity and given scores ranging from zero to 27.

At the start of the trial, the average score was 14.5 for the psilocybin group. But after six weeks, scores reduced by an average of eight points.

Seven out of ten participants who took the psilocybin dose saw their scores cut by at least half.

Remission of symptoms – measured as a score of zero to five at week six – was seen in 57 per cent of the psilocybin group, compared with just 28 per cent in the escitalopram group.

However, the the team say that, while the findings are generally positive, the lack of a placebo-only group and the small number of participants limits what conclusions they can draw about the effect of either treatment alone.

They add the trial sample was comprised of largely white, majority male, and relatively well-educated individuals, which means they can’t say the drug would work for everyone.

It is also important to note, thee say, the psilocybin group reported fewer cases of common SSRI side effects like dry mouth, anxiety, drowsiness, and sexual dysfunction than the escitalopram group but had a similar rate of unpleasant side-effects overall.

In particular, headaches experienced one day after dosing sessions were the most common side effect of psilocybin.

The authors also warn against people trying to medicate themselves as taking mushrooms that have not been properly processed into the drug, making precise dosing possible, outside of a clinical setting without support or safeguards could have negative consequences.

Dr. Rosalind Watts, clinical lead of the trial and formerly based at the Centre for Psychedelic Research, said: “Context is crucial for these studies and all volunteers received therapy during and after their psilocybin sessions.

“Our team of therapists were on hand to offer full support through sometimes difficult emotional experiences.”

Professor David Nutt, the principal investigator on the study and the Edmond Safra Chair in Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial, said: “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.

“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.”

Dr Carhart-Harris, added: “These latest finding 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.” 

The study was funded by the Alexander Mosley Charitable Trust and the founders of the Center for Psychedelic Research

He added: “I’m deeply grateful for the philanthropic support that made this trial possible.”

“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 findings were published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

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