An active ingredient in magic mushrooms, called psilocybin, was used in a clinical trial as a possible antidepressant. Reports claim that the science of antidepressants is not currently an exact science, and two patients can react very differently when given the same drug.
Science is currently still going through a process of working out why certain drugs work for some people, but have absolutely no effect on others. One study from Chicago's Northwestern University claims that doctors treat the causes of depression in a crude way, using drugs "aimed at the wrong target", and often focusing on reducing stress rather than the depression itself. Others have also suggested that commercial interests are skewing results during the testing of antidepressants. Dr. Mark Bolstridge, an honorary research associate at UCL and a clinical psychiatrist, is currently in the process of searching for alternative and unusual treatments for depression. In particular, he has been examining the hallucinogenic compound that is found within magic mushrooms called psilocybin.
Alongside the president of the British Neuroscience Association and former government drugs advisor David Nutt, Bolstridge initially applied to run a trial of psilocybin in 2013. Nutt had also previously run small experiments before the stringent regulations around psychoactive substances were put into place, as he felt that the chemical compound had the potential to alleviate the symptoms of depression, and therefore wanted to conduct more experiments.
However, they ran into problems along the way before conducting the trial. Bolstridge said, "We had a lot of problems getting the drug itself, because you need a special license to be able to use it… and it had to be imported from Europe. Ethics committees tend to wave things through the first time you present your case to them. We had to meet with them three of four times before they were prepared to approve our study. Your average person on the street is very skeptical of these drugs because they're classified in the A category, which means, as far as the general person on the street is concerned, they're dangerous, as they're the same category as heroin and cocaine."
During the 1950s and 1960s, researchers in psychiatric hospitals ran a number of studies linking psychedelic drugs with various therapeutic effects, including the treatment of alcoholism, depression, and even autism. However, many of these studies were not efficiently controlled. Bolstridge said, "Studies were not performed to the contemporary standard of rigour. The methodology was a bit suspect."
Following this, it has been hard to get approval for similar studies, but luckily, Bolstridge was able to run a clinical trial to test the effects of psilocybin on depression for the first time in decades. They went on to recruit 12 patients with a moderate to severe form of depression, and treated them in a controlled environment. The participants of the trial were not offered a financial incentive to take part, but instead did so out of "sheer desperation" to rid them of depression. Bolstridge said, "Some patients had been on a whole load of different antidepressants, and nothing had worked. And they were still just feeling really low, and they weren't functioning in life. They were severely incapacitated. They weren't working. Their lives just hadn't planned out as hoped, as expected."
One of the participants of the trial, Kirk Rutter, agreed to speak to Tonicabout his experience. He said that he participated in the trial as he "thought it might help me clear the grief and get out the emotion." His depression had previously resisted the treatment of antidepressants and psychotherapy. He believes that the drugs that were prescribed to him were designed to "deal with the symptoms, not the problem".
Following the treatment, he said that he felt "very, very positive. In the first week, I felt great. And then I felt like I was moving backward. It was like, that didn't last long. And then I felt OK again. The only way I can describe it is like when you drop a heavy object into a body of water where it kind of goes under and leaps back out, and it eventually steadies and finds its level. It's kind of like that."
Bolstridge said of the trial as a whole, "The vast majority responded well. For the vast majority of people, the pressure 'lifted.' And there were some persisting changes as well, because this is very different to administering [traditional] antidepressant drugs, which you take on a daily basis. With the psilocybin, there were two doses, separated a week apart, and people responded even six months afterward. They were still better than when they first participated in the study."
Publicity around studies of this kind are always very wary, as once people hear that magic mushrooms may treat depression, suddenly headlines appear which are seen to encourage people to self-medicate. However, Bolstridge's response to this potential danger is that "I suppose we have to get out the message and disseminate it widely that people shouldn't be messing around with these drugs, and not trying to self-medicate, because we know exactly what dosage we were giving. Someone foraging, trying to find which mushrooms to take—it's really difficult to identify exactly how much they need."
There still remains a lot of research to do into using magic mushrooms as a treatment for depression. Bolstridge concludes, "This is such a preliminary project. This hasn't been done for donkeys years, because it's been so difficult getting hold of the drug. We're still trying to identify the best course of treatment."
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