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it’s not just a ‘trip’— magic mushrooms vs. depression

Once considered something like a druids’ potion or some kind of a hippy mind-blower, psychedelics, magic mushrooms especially, are making a comeback.

This time, they’re back and supported with much more respectable clinical research and scientific acknowledgment.

Recent studies have reignited interest in these substances, particularly psilocybin, the active compound in “shrooms”, as a potent treatment for major depressive disorder.

The results of these studies indicate that just a single dose of psilocybin can significantly reduce symptoms of depression for up to six weeks to almost a year, challenging the current treatment paradigms (with antidepressants).

Let’s cover some basics. Psilocybin is not just another compound — it’s a molecule with a mission. It is structurally similar to serotonin, a “feel-good” neurotransmitter, that plays a crucial role in regulating our mood, memory, and even gastrointestinal functions.

What happens in our brain when we consume psilocybin, then? Well, psilocybin targets a specific subtype of serotonin receptors, often resulting in better mood, improved cognition, and perception. These changes in consciousness may lead to increased brain interconnectedness and flexibility, all of which are often compromised in individuals suffering from depression.

Psilocybin’s ability to bind and activate serotonin receptors suggests a direct biochemical pathway through which it alleviates depressive symptoms. Most studies say that psilocybin doesn’t offer just a ‘trip’ — it’s a journey towards a more connected and flexible brain.

One of the recent double-blinded studies was a Phase 2 clinical trial (published in JAMA Network, 31 August 2023) conducted from December 2019 through June 2022 across 11 different sites in the U.S. The research team recruited 104 participants, aged between 21 and 65, who had documented diagnoses of moderate-to-severe major depressive disorder for at least 60 days.

Participants were randomly assigned to receive either a single 25 mg dose of psilocybin or a placebo — 100 mg dose of niacin.

The study was designed to overcome some of the limitations of earlier psilocybin research — a small number of participants and the potential for researchers to know whether people were taking psilocybin or the placebo.

The results were groundbreaking.

Participants who received psilocybin experienced significantly less severe depression symptoms than those who received the placebo, with effects that lasted up to 43 days into the trial.

The study used the Montgomery-Asberg Depression Rating Scale (MADRS) to measure the severity of the participants’ depression symptoms at different points during the trial.

However, it’s crucial to note that psilocybin treatment was not without its risks. A significantly higher percentage of people in the psilocybin group reported having at least one treatment-related adverse event, most of which were considered mild-to-moderate. So, even though one can’t overdose with psilocybin, some of the adverse effects include headaches, nausea, and hallucinations, mainly occurring during, or on the day of dosing.

Also, the mechanism of psilocybin action, involving serotonin receptors, suggests that it could potentially be effective for a range of other mental health conditions. These could include anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and even obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

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