Magic medicine

Magic mushrooms are helping people with treatment resistant depression. 

Author: Noah Eckstein
Editor: Maya Pirie
Artist: Lucy Gourmet

There is an old Lakota proverb, which says that when a man moves away from nature, his heart becomes hard. In today’s society it is becoming increasingly easy to avoid nature. We are consumed by a routine of technology, emails, DMs, scrolling, and alerts that constantly notify us to pay attention to our devices. Native Americans teach their children that a relationship with nature is fundamental in creating a prosperous and fulfilling life. A walk through lush fields of green grass, where large oak trees sway in the wind is a great way to de-stress. 

Take a deep breath. What’s that popping out of the moss-covered ground? It’s a liberty cap mushroom, filled with psilocybin, a naturally occurring psychedelic prodrug found in over 200 mushroom species. After eating handfuls of them, your vision becomes distorted in a kaleidoscope of colour and a six-hour journey commences.

Humans have been ingesting psychedelic mushrooms for generations. Some historians believe that indigenous North African cultures used magic mushrooms for ceremonial purposes as far back as 9,000 BC. In the 1950s and 60s, scientific research into psychedelic drugs was abundant, mainly coming from the United States, with studies showing promising breakthroughs in the treatment of depression and anxiety. However, following President Nixon’s introduction of the Controlled Substances Act in 1970, as part of his administration’s crackdown on drugs, psilocybin, mescaline, LSD and DMT were made illegal, halting all research progression. 

Over the past ten years, scientists have started researching these substances again. The Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London is looking into how magic mushrooms in particular can aid in the treatment of depression. The results from their first trial, nicknamed Psilodep 1, were captured in the documentary ‘Magic Medicine’ created by British filmmaker Monty Wates. UCL’s Society for the Application of Psychedelics (SAP) recently held a screening of the documentary, followed by a panel discussion with psychedelic researchers. 

The documentary followed three participants with treatment-resistant depression out of the 20 who took part in the overall trial. Each was given one low dose of psilocybin (10mg), followed by a larger dose (25mg) one week later. 

Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, head of psychedelic research at Imperial and leader of 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 treatment.”

Immediately following treatment, patients reported a decrease in depression and an improvement in quality of life. Notably, fMRI imaging showed a disruption in the participant’s resting brain blood flow and functional connectivity post-treatment. These changes in brain activity were associated with reduction in depression that lasted up to five weeks post treatment. 

‘Magic Medicine’ also gained access to the ‘trips’ of the participants. In a particularly memorable scene, we see a man, Andy, riddled by years of depression, lying still in a converted hospital bed now decorated with neutral mood lights and bouquets of flowers. Participants of the study take psilocybin in capsule form and are then advised to place a blindfold over their eyes and lie back. Two therapists are at Andy’s side, helping guide him through his experience if anything too difficult surfaces or if he needs a hand to hold. In a pre-interview before his second session, Andy tells the camera that he attributes his depression to difficulty at work. Yet, during this trip, he shouts “no” over and over again, at what he perceives to be a vision of his father suffocating him as an infant. The scene is difficult to watch and his pain is unmistakable. One might think, how could such a traumatic experience be helpful for his depression? 

Michelle Baker Jones, a psychedelic integration counsellor and member of the Imperial Research team, says that it is vital for a psychiatrist to help people integrate these types of experiences into their lives. In fact, the difficulties that arise during psilocybin trips are important for the person’s healing process, as they are facing their deepest fears head-on instead of suppressing them further. 

Dr James Rucker, a psychiatrist involved in the study, believes more controlled trials are needed to assess whether the effects can be replicated with a greater number of participants. The Imperial team is currently working on Psilodep 2, a test on how psilocybin compares with antidepressants.

These initial findings are encouraging, a first step toward psychedelic therapy for the masses. ‘Magic Medicine’ continued to follow the participants for six months after their second treatment. For the most part, the pangs of depression struck back and participants returned to their prescribed antidepressants. Because of the legal status of psilocybin, it is challenging to conduct studies that require re-administration of psychedelics every 5-6 weeks. Arguably, this would help patients stay away from conventional antidepressants by creating a new routine consisting of psilocybin and therapeutic integration.  

As more research is conducted around psychedelics and their curative potential for mental health problems, the stigma surrounding these substances will slowly erode. Likewise, as our society becomes more technologically advanced, mushrooms could show us a path toward reintegrating nature into our routines. The future is bright. 

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