People who use magic mushrooms often claim that the experience opens one’s mind — and this might be exactly what happens. New research found that the brains of patients with depression who underwent psilocybin-assisted therapy showed signs of increased connectivity. This helps different brain regions to open up and interact more freely with one another.
This “opening up” effect resulted in significant improvements in depression symptoms, scientists at Imperial College London found in two combined studies. These effects lingered on even three weeks after a single therapy session. Conventional antidepressants like escitalopram did not lead to the same enhancements in communication between different regions, showing that psychedelics treat depression using a totally different pathway.
“The effect seen with psilocybin is consistent across two studies, related to people getting better, and was not seen with a conventional antidepressant,” Professor Robin Carhart-Harris, former Head of the Imperial Centre for Psychedelic Research who is now based at the University of California, San Francisco, said in a statement.
“In previous studies we had seen a similar effect in the brain when people were scanned whilst on a psychedelic, but here we’re seeing it weeks after treatment for depression, which suggests a ‘carry over’ of the acute drug action.”
An open mind is less prone to depression
The team of researchers led by Carhart-Harrisscanned the brains of almost 60 volunteers with depression using fMRI in two trials. One trial involved patients with depression that did not respond to conventional antidepressants and therapies, all of whom received psilocybin (the psychoactive ingredient in magic mushrooms). The other trial involved patients with more general depression, who were given either psilocybin or escitalopram, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor typically used to treat this condition.
The patients weren’t just given drugs to trip on their own. That’s actually a pretty bad idea and may do more harm than good, which is why the researchers strongly advise against self-medication in this instance. Instead, all the patients were under strict supervision throughout their psychedelic experience, during which mental health professionals employed talk therapy and the dose of the drug was perfectly regulated and formulated in the lab.
All patients had their brains scanned before administration, and then one day after, and three weeks after they received their psilocybin therapy. These brain scans showed that the patients who took the magic mushroom active substance had better connectivity between brain regions that were previously segregated. After their therapy, the patients showed significantly fewer depression symptoms and of lower intensity, as measured by standard clinical questionnaires.
According to the researchers, psilocybin seems to make the brain more flexible and fluid, but also less entrenched in negative thinking patterns that can spiral out of control in patients with depression.
The “brain opening” effect was strongest among the patients with the best improvements in depression symptoms, showing the two are correlated. How exactly psilocybin improves these brain connections is not well understood yet, though. The positive effects on depression symptoms were long-lasting, with patients feeling better even after three weeks of their therapy. Follow-up data that has yet to be published suggests improvements still show even after six months, though some patients revert to their previous state.
“We don’t yet know how long the changes in brain activity seen with psilocybin therapy last and we need to do more research to understand this. We do know that some people relapse, and it may be that after a while their brains revert to the rigid patterns of activity we see in depression,” Professor Carhart-Harris said.
The researcher mentions another significant point: this is the first time that we’ve found that psilocybin works fundamentally different from conventional antidepressants, a major step up in this field that is looking to introduce psilocybin and other psychedelics as real alternatives to depression treatments.
That’s not all. There are hints that psychedelic therapy could treat other mental illnesses, including anorexia and addiction. Professor Carhart-Harris says he is planning new research to test this out.
Previously, studies showed that psilocybin resets the activity of key brain circuits linked to depression, allowing patients to feel ‘defragged’ or ‘rebooted’. Other studies have linked the psychedelic drug to reduced anxiety and lower compulsion to pursue addictions.
The findings appeared in the journal Nature.