Long-awaited human trials suggest that magic mushrooms can treat depression

A promising drug.
A promising drug.
Image: Associated Press/Peter Dejong
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Magic mushrooms are a powerful hallucinogen. The psychoactive substance in them, called psilocybin, can cause euphoria, hallucinations, and spiritual experiences. A new study shows that they could also be a promising treatment for severe depression.

In 2005, the UK banned magic mushrooms and classified them as a Class A drug, the most dangerous category. In theory, even though the classification makes psilocybin’s use illegal, its research use should be allowed.

In practice, however, scientists from Imperial College London soon found themselves wading through countless hours of red tape to conduct any research. They weren’t just toiling to acquire special licenses but also struggling to get funding to carry out their studies.

After many years, they eventually were able to conduct a small trial, where they gave psilocybin to 12 volunteers. All the volunteers had been clinically depressed for a long time; one had suffered symptoms of depression for 30 years. They had all tried at least two different treatments, to no avail.

The volunteers were provided with psychological support before, during, and after each session during the clinical trial. The findings, detailed in Lancet Psychiatry, found that after one week of treatment, eight volunteers had no symptoms of depression. Three months later, five of those eight continued to show no symptoms.

Researchers are cautious about the promising results, because the sample size was particularly small and there was no control group that received placebo treatment. Until they can carry out a larger, randomized control trial, which is the gold standard of research in medicine, researchers can’t be sure that the positive effects were definitely caused by psilocybin, or that the treatment’s long-term effect is real.

But the researchers pointed out that it is rare for people with severe depression to recover spontaneously without treatment, especially when some of the volunteers had lived with depression for much of their adult lives. So the least that can be done now is to make trials involving psychedelics a little easier to conduct.

And the research is more relevant than ever. The World Health Organization describes depression as “the leading cause of disability worldwide.” In the UK, one in four people are affected by a mental health problem each year, with depression affecting one in 10 people at some point in their lives.