Psilocybin Mushrooms — The Next Breakthrough Mental Health Needs
Magic mushrooms to cure depression? What about addiction and anxiety? A few decades ago, using a psychedelic drug to cure mental disorders would have seemed unthinkable to many, but times have changed.
Psilocybin, the psychoactive compound found in magic mushrooms, has been making waves in the medical community in recent years — opening up a whole new area of work as researchers explore its therapeutic potential to treat everything from depression to anxiety to Alzheimer’s.
What is Psilocybin and Where Does it Come From?
Most of us have heard of psilocybin before, but under a different name. It is a naturally occurring hallucinogenic molecule found in mushrooms that belong to the genus Psilocybe, more commonly known as “magic mushrooms” or “shrooms”.
These types of mushrooms contain the serotonergic hallucinogens, psilocybin and psilocin, and they have a long history of being used in spiritual rituals dating back thousands of years due to their ability to produce powerful LSD-like hallucinations and feelings of euphoria.
When ingested, the body converts psilocybin into psilocin, which activates serotonin receptors, or 5-HT receptors, in the brain to produce its psychotropic effects. 5HT receptors are found in many parts of the brain, most often in the prefrontal cortex, where they affect mood regulation, cognition, and perception.
The History of Magic Mushrooms
The magic of mushrooms is far from a new concept — archaeological evidence suggests that Saharan aboriginal tribes of North Africa as far back as 9000 B.C. may have used psychedelic mushrooms, based on rock paintings that have been found. There are also confirmed cases of psychedelic use among the Mayan and Aztec tribes of Mesoamerica, including a psilocybin substance called teonanácatl.
In the 1950s, R. Gordon Wasson, a banker turned amateur mycologist, witnessed and participated in a Mazatec ritual ceremony with psilocybin mushrooms while traveling through Mexico. When Wasson returned, he wrote about his findings and experiences in an exposé for Life Magazine entitled, “Seeking the Magic Mushroom”. A colleague of Wasson’s, Roger Heim enlisted the help of Albert Hofmann (the famous Swiss chemist known for synthesizing LSD) to identify the active ingredient in mushroom samples collected by Wasson in Mexico. Hofmann first isolated psilocybin in 1957 and developed a synthetic version of the compound a year later.
The Life article also caught the attention of two researchers at Harvard University, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert. The two founded the Harvard Psilocybin Project, which was responsible for some of the earliest psilocybin research. They conducted a series of controversial experiments, which resulted in their eventual dismissal from the school in 1963 after various faculty members and administrators expressed concern over the safety and scientific merit of their research. Leary and Alpert went on to kickstart a psychedelic movement that led to the widespread use of psilocybin mushrooms in the 1960s.
During this period, hallucinogens like psilocybin, LSD, and mescaline were used extensively in psychiatry research and were the subject of over a thousand scientific research papers, several international conferences, and dozens of books. Despite the promising results, psychedelic experimentation in the U.S. was brought to a grinding halt amidst growing fear of psychedelic drug use in youth and legal backlash in response to their association with Hippy counterculture.
In 1971, psilocybin and other psychedelics were designated as Schedule 1 drugs in the UN’s Psychotropic Substances. Schedule 1 designation marked them as illegal for all purposes — making it virtually impossible for researchers to continue working with them.
The Renaissance of Psychedelic Therapy
For nearly three decades, research into psilocybin and other psychedelics was essentially dormant until a resurgence of interest during the late 1990s. Roland R. Griffiths, a psychopharmacologist at John Hopkins University was able to gain regulatory approval for the first major psilocybin study since the early experiments at Harvard, sparking a renewal of psychedelic research around the world.
The landmark study, published in 2006, examined how a single dose of psilocybin has the ability to generate mystical experiences. The double-blind study included 36 “hallucinogen-naive” participants and incorporated the use of an “active placebo”, methylphenidate (also known as Ritalin). This was done to produce a physical experience in the control group in order to mask when a group was being given a placebo. Participants attended two 8-hour drug sessions at two month intervals.
The results were impressive — over 60 percent experienced a “full mystical experience” and a two-month follow up saw an increased well-being or life satisfaction in 79 percent of participants when compared against the placebo group. This was also confirmed by structured interviews conducted with family, friends, and co-workers.
New Research into Psilocybin Gaining Speed
Since the first John Hopkins study, a growing body of clinical research has been conducted into the effects of psilocybin as a treatment for a myriad of psychological conditions. John Hopkins has gone on to publish over 60 peer-reviewed articles in scientific journals on the therapeutic benefits of psilocybin, even founding its own Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research to focus on psychedelic treatments for addiction, anxiety, and even Alzheimer’s.
So, what else does the research say about psilocybin as a treatment option for difficult-to-treat health conditions?
The results are promising.
Depression and Anxiety Disorders
Treatment for mood and anxiety disorders is one of the most promising areas for psilocybin research. A 2016 John Hopkins study examined cancer-related depression and anxiety in 51 patients dealing with a life-threatening diagnosis. After being given two doses of psilocybin five weeks apart, around 60 percent reported complete symptomatic remission, with 80 percent showing a significant reduction in end-of-life depression and anxiety.
These results are similar to another New York University study that found a noticeable reduction in depression and anxiety in 60 to 80 percent of subjects that sustained for up to six months.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
Researchers at the University of Arizona gained approval from the FDA to conduct a small study in 2001 focusing on the use of psilocybin to treat patients suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder.
The study included 9 patients with moderate to severe OCD symptoms. Patients were administered up to four doses of psilocybin, one week apart. The results found that all patients found some kind of relief for at least 24 hours after a treatment and up to 66 percent of subjects maintained a 50 percent decrease in measurable OCD symptoms for at least 24 hours. The long-term results were less impressive, with only two subjects maintaining improvements up to a week later and only one reporting sustained remission during a six-month follow-up.
The same team is currently running a more rigorous clinical trial, involving eight weekly doses of psilocybin and comprehensive neuroimaging. A similar clinical trial is also underway at Yale University to examine the short-term effects of a single dose of psilocybin on acute OCD symptoms.
Psilocybin has also shown a lot of promise for treating addiction. In 2012, NYU Langone Medical Center launched a proof-of-concept study into psilocybin-assisted treatment for alcohol dependence. Results saw a significant reduction in drinking and abstinence in patients after they were treated with psilocybin as part of the overall treatment program. NYU has since started Phase 2 clinical trials of the treatment that are set to complete in 2020.
Another study out of Johns Hopkins, revealed that psilocybin could be helpful for people who want to quit smoking. Participants underwent two to three psilocybin sessions along with cognitive behavioral therapy as part of a smoking cessation program. Of the 15 participants, twelve were able to successfully quit — that’s an 80 percent success rate compared to a 35 percent success rate for more traditional methods.
Psilocybin Treatment Edging Towards FDA Approval
Even more worrying, many traditional therapies like psychotherapy or antidepressants simply don’t work for about 30 percent of all people. With over 43 million people struggling with mental illness, the medical community is looking for new treatment options.
And it appears the federal government is finally recognizing the potential of psilocybin, too.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has started to lend its support, helping to accelerate the research and development of psilocybin. In fact, at least two psilocybin clinical trials for treating depression have been granted a Breakthrough Therapy designation by the FDA since 2019, which helps to expedite the development and approval process of a drug.
While it doesn’t guarantee market approval, the designation itself means that drug candidates are given priority review and typically indicates that the FDA expects the drug to have more impact than existing therapies on the treatment of a disease.
Psilocybin and other psychedelics represent one of the most promising new avenues for finding ways to help millions find relief. While there are still a lot of questions and research needed — the future is looking bright.