Will Psychedelic Drugs Revolutionise Psychiatric Treatment?
Across the globe, cases of depression skyrocket as the 2020 pandemic continues. To cope with this fast-approaching mental health crisis, experts are thinking outside the box.
The number of people suffering from depression doubled during the pandemic. Depression is a challenging mental health condition, and up to one-third of patients will not respond to treatment. As such, a fast-approaching mental health crisis is well underway. It is nothing new to say that leaders need to act, but how to respond remains a complicated question.
However, in our pre-pandemic world, there was a shift in the way we approach mental health conditions. Amongst other changes, the last five years saw a surge of research into the therapeutic potential of psychedelic substances. This shift in our thinking allowed us to combine different schools of thought, and opened us up to new therapeutic methods. Consequently, to cope with our present crisis, support for psychedelic substances continues to grow. For instance, in the US and Europe, restrictions have eased on psilocybin — the active substance in magic mushrooms — as a means of treating depression.
What is Psilocybin?
Psilocybin is a naturally occurring psychoactive compound found in ‘magic mushrooms.’ It is most well-known for producing a profound ‘mystical experience’ that usually lasts 4–6 hours. It has been used in medical and ritualistic practices for thousands of years. More still, it was also an object of scientific fascination in the 1960s.
At the time, psychiatrists argued that compounds such as psilocybin and LSD were beneficial for those suffering from ill-health (Byock, 2018). But then, when recreational use surged, strict regulations ground research to a halt. However, over the last five decades, advancements in neuroscience have enhanced our knowledge of psychedelic substances.
What are the Therapeutic Benefits?
Numerous rigorous studies show that psilocybin is a highly effective treatment for depression. The therapeutic benefits seem to arise on a molecular level, within the brain’s neuroplasticity. Amongst other benefits, these changes manifest as increased empathy levels and less existential dread. For example, in one study (2016) conducted by John Hopkins, they discovered a direct correlation between the intensity of the ‘mystical experience’ and the extent to which the person’s depressive symptoms decreased. In the fMRI scans, the team found that psilocybin effectively “reset” specific brain circuits directly linked to depression.
The Positive Effects of Psilocybin Last for Years
In January 2020, the NYU Department of Psychiatry published a ground-breaking study. In 2016, the team gave a group of cancer patients a single dose of psilocybin.
The study yielded astounding results, with 60–80% of patients showing reductions in depression, anxiety, and existential distress (Agin-Liebes et al., 2020). However, most notably, in the 2020 follow-up study, the participants were still feeling the positive effects — nearly five years later.
Psilocybin Increases Emotional Awareness
In another clinical trial conducted by the Beckley/Imperial Psychedelic Research Programme (2017), the researchers found that psilocybin not only eased the depressive symptoms, but they did so without the emotional numbing of most antidepressants. On the contrary, psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy increased emotional responsiveness. For example, during the clinical trial, participants were shown pictures of faces with various emotions on them. The fMRI scans showed that the psilocybin had increased activity in the amygdala, which is the part of the brain that controls our emotions. The results were so astounding, the psychedelics research team at Beckley Foundation even suggests that psilocybin is “competitive with currently available treatments for major depression.”
Are “Medicinal Mushrooms” a Possibility?
The World Health Organization states that 264 million people suffer from depression, making it a “major contributor to the overall global burden of disease.” Unfortunately, the 2020 coronavirus pandemic has significantly exacerbated these numbers. However, in 2018, The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave the “breakthrough treatment” designation to Compass Pathways for their promising study into the use of psilocybin as medication for treatment-resistant depression. In 2019, they gave the same designation to Usona Institute for their research into psilocybin as a treatment for MDD. More still, in 2019, a team at Miami University genetically engineered E. coli bacteria capable of producing psilocybin. These results mean that psilocybin can be manufactured on an industrial scale, making “medicinal mushrooms” a real possibility for the future of mental health treatment.
To conclude, it is often said that in times of crisis, human beings are their most innovative. Adversity always beckons in change, and the coronavirus pandemic is no exception. It has altered how we relate to each other, how we work, and potentially, how we treat mental health conditions. Thus, while 2020 was an undoubtedly painful year, there are exciting advancements on the horizon for our health and wellbeing.
Agin-Liebes, G. Malone, T. Yalch, M. et al. (2020). Long-term follow-up of psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy for psychiatric and existential distress in patients with life-threatening cancer. Journal of Psychopharmacology. 34(2), 155–166. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/0269881119897615.
Griffiths, R. Johnson, M. Carducci, M. et al. (2016). Psilocybin produces substantial and sustained decreases in depression and anxiety in patients with life-threatening cancer: A randomized double-blind trial. 30(12), 1181–1197. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/0269881116675513.
Ross, S. Bossis, A. Guss, J. et al. (2016). Rapid and sustained symptom reduction following psilocybin treatment for anxiety and depression in patients with life-threatening cancer: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of Psychopharmacology. 30(12), 1165–1180. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/0269881116675512.