Patients taking the psychoactive compound in magic mushrooms, psilocybin, to treat depression show a ‘reset’ of their brain activity and reduced symptoms weeks after treatment, scientists have fund.
Researchers from Imperial College London used psilocybin substance that makes mushrooms magic to treat 20 participants with depression in whom conventional treatment had failed.
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All but one did the psilocybin treatment described a sense of their brains ‘rebooting’ after just two psilocybin experiences.
The researchers say the benefits lasting up to five weeks after treatment, and believe the psychedelic compound may effectively reset to ‘default mode network’ the activity of key brain circuits known to play a role in depression.
The findings published in the journal Scientific Reports, show comparison of images of patients’ brains before and one day after they received the drug treatment revealed changes in brain activity. These areas of the brain reintegrated, became more stable, and that most participants felt immediate and continued relief from their depression.
Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris, Head of Psychedelic Research at Imperial, who led the study, said: “We have shown for the first time clear changes in brain activity in depressed people treated with psilocybin after failing to respond to conventional treatments.
According to Dr. Carhart-Harris “several of their participants described feeling ‘reset’ after the treatment and often used computer analogies. 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,” he said.
In the trial, the first with psilocybin in depression, the patients were given two doses of psilocybin (10 mg and 25 mg), with the second dose a week after the first.
Nineteen of these underwent initial two brain imaging methods to measure changes in blood flow and the crosstalk between brain regions. The second scan conducted one day after the high dose treatment.
The benefits of the psilocybin began immediately following the treatment, unlike conventional antidepressants that typically have to be in the system for weeks before patients notice improvements. Patients reported a decrease in depressive symptoms improvements in mood and stress relief.
According to the researchers, the after-effects of the psilocybin seemed to reach the maximum level five weeks later, but they saw sustained improvement in the patients for as much as six months.
Dr Carhart-Harris explained: “Through collecting these imaging data we have been able to provide a window into the after effects of psilocybin treatment in the brains of patients with chronic depression.
“Based on what we know and of what people say about their experiences, it may be that psychedelics do indeed ‘reset’ the brain networks associated with depression, effectively enabling them to be lifted from the depressed state.”
The authors warn that while the initial findings of the experimental therapy are exciting, the research is at an early stage and that patients with depression should not attempt to self-medicate, as the team provided a special therapeutic context for the drug experience and things may go awry if the extensive psychological component of the treatment is neglected.
They add that future studies will include more robust designs and currently plan to test psilocybin against a leading antidepressant in a trial set to start early next year.