- Patients were given high doses of controlled Class A drug psilocybin
- Experienced it hallucinogenic effects and all given psychological support
- Eight of 12 people on the trial were in full remission after a week
- Scientists say larger trials are needed to look at the long-term effects
Hundreds of thousands of people could benefit from antidepressants derived from magic mushrooms, experts have claimed. A trial found that taking the psychedelic drug could ease people’s depression for months at a time – even if their condition previously had been considered incurable.
All 12 patients in the pilot project, led by Imperial College London, saw their depression improve for at least three weeks after taking capsules containing the drug psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms. And five of them remained depression-free for at least three months.
The participants had each suffered depression for years, or even decades, and had previously tried an average of five different treatments which had failed to work. Experts stressed that the study, published in the Lancet Psychiatry medical journal, was merely a feasibility study and far more extensive research is needed before the drug could be considered for patients.
But they said that the results show that psilocybin has significant potential to treat the thousands of patients for whom traditional medication does not work. Mental experts welcomed the £500,000 trial, funded by the Medical Research Council, as a breakthrough which could ‘revolutionise’ the treatment of depression.
Researcher Amanda Feilding, of the Beckley Foundation research centre in Oxford, said: ‘For the first time in many years, people who were at the end of the road with currently available treatments reported decreased anxiety, increased optimism and an ability to enjoy things. This is an unparalleled success.’
The study was led by Professor David Nutt, who was sacked from his job as the Government’s chief adviser on drugs in 2009 after saying ecstasy and LSD were less harmful than alcohol.
HOW DID THE TRIAL WORK?
The six men and six women attended two treatment days.
On the first day they were given a low (test) dose of psilocybin in a 10mg oral capsule On the second, they received a higher, therapeutic, dose of 25mg a week later.
Patients took the capsules while lying down on a ward bed, in a special room with low lighting and music, and two psychiatrists sat either side of the bed. The psychiatrists were present to provide support and check in on patients throughout the process by asking how they were feeling.
Patients had an MRI scan the day after the therapeutic dose. They were followed up one day after the first dose, and then at one, two, three, and five weeks and three months after the second dose.
The psychedelic effects of the drug were detectable 30 to 60 minutes after taking the capsules and peaked at 2-3 hours. They were discharged 6 hours later. Side effects included anxiety before or as the psilocybin effects began, three-quarters experienced confusion, a third were both nauseas and suffered a headache.
Two patients reported mild paranoia.
His team spent three years securing Home Office permission to use the strictly controlled Class A drug psilocybin in the study. The drug was manufactured synthetically by a private company, at the cost of £23,400 a gram – enough for 40 doses.
The patients took the equivalent of five magic mushrooms, enough to make them ‘trip’ on the drug for up to six hours, in which time they were closely supervised by two psychotherapists. Researcher Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, from Imperial College London, said: ‘These experiences with psilocybin can be incredibly profound.
‘Sometimes people have what they describe as mystical or spiritual-type experiences – that’s not uncommon.
‘This isn’t a magic cure, but even so the effects at this stage do look promising.’ The participants reported side effects including confusion, nausea and headaches, and two suffered a brief episode of mild paranoia.
But crucially, anyone with a history of psychosis – a problem that has been linked to hallucinogens in the past – was excluded from the study. Dr Carhart-Harris stressed that the study was conducted under close medical supervision, and that people should not try magic mushrooms themselves.
‘I wouldn’t want members of the public thinking they can treat their own depressions by picking their own magic mushrooms,’ he said. ‘That kind of approach could be risky.’ Because the trial was not randomly controlled or blinded, all the patients knew what they were taking, which the scientists said means the results are open to question.
Now that the treatment has been shown to be safe and at least partially effective, they are planning further trials to definitively prove that the drugs work. Professor Nutt said that if those trials prove successful, and the drug were to be licensed, people could take the drugs every three or four months in a clinical retreat.
‘Instead of going to a spa three times a year, you would go to a clinic and have the treatment,’ he said. He added: ‘It is estimated that 40 per cent of the population get depressed at some point. If even 10 per cent are treatment resistant, then it is going to be hundreds of thousands of people who will be potentially eligible.
For the first time in many years, people who were at the end of the road with currently available treatments reported decreased anxiety, increased optimism and an ability to enjoy things Study co-author Amanda Feilding
‘The burden of costs to the UK economy of depression is massively greater than any cost of this intervention. People will get back to work and it will pay for itself in a month.’ Professor Nutt hailed the study as a ‘landmark’ but lashed out at the ‘Kafkaesque’ restrictions that made it so costly.
Because of the regulations and red tape, it cost £1,500 to dose each patient, he said, adding: ‘In any sane world it might have cost £30.’
The scientists remain divided as to how psilocybin actually lifts depression. Professor Nutt thinks it blocks a harmful neural circuit that causes people to ‘ruminate’ and dwell on thoughts of failure and inadequacy.
But Dr Carhart-Harris suspects the ‘spiritual’ experience of taking the drug jolts a patient out of their depressive mindset, allowing them to see the world in a more positive light. Mental health charities welcomed the breakthrough. Nigel Campbell, of Rethink Mental Illness said: ‘We desperately need new treatments for depression to help those who are not responding to the current therapies.
‘It’s fantastic to investment in research into innovative treatments for this condition, and more investment is needed. ‘The key issue is whether psilocybin can be administered safely and effectively, and this study is a promising first step.’
TAKING MAGIC MUSHROOM DRUG HAS HELPED ME WITH MUM’S DEATH
A man who volunteered to take the magic mushroom ingredient psilocybin as an experimental treatment for depression has described how the drug helped him ‘stay connected’ with his dead mother. Kirk Rutter, 45, from London, said he was ‘truly heartbroken’ by the loss of his mother and became deeply depressed after her death in October 2011.
Antidepressants did not help, so he agreed to join 11 other patients taking part in a UK pilot trial investigating the potential therapeutic effects of psilocybin. The treatment involved swallowing a high dose capsule containing enough of the Class A drug to induce a psychedelic ‘high’.
Mr Rutter said: ‘I was very nervous about taking part, as I had no prior experience of psilocybin. However the team explained the research, and guided me through the process. By the time it came to taking the compound I felt very relaxed, thanks to the friendly staff, room layout and calming music.
‘The study involved taking two doses of psilocybin, and both times I experienced something called ‘psychedelic turbulence’.
‘This is the transition period to the psychedelic state, and caused me to feel cold and anxious. However this soon passed, and I had a mostly pleasant – and sometimes beautiful – experience.
‘There were certainly some challenging moments during the sessions. For instance, when I experienced being in hospital with my mother, when she was very ill.
The treatment involved a high dose of psilocybin, equivalent to eating several magic mushrooms. ‘And during the high dose session I visualised my grief as an ulcer that I was preventing from healing so that I could stay connected to my mother.
‘However by going through memories, and feeling the love in our relationship, I saw that letting go of the grief was not letting go of her memory. ‘Following on from the sessions I felt lighter and more optimistic than I had in quite some time. However it certainly wasn’t a ‘quick fix’, and I needed to work at staying positive.
‘Since then I have approached life and friendships with a fresher viewpoint. For instance I try not to get irritated by little things, and rather than getting annoyed by petty issues I try to embrace the core, loving part of a friendship. For the last few months I’ve started to feel less positive but I’m still doing great.’
All the patients recruited for the trial were suffering from moderate to severe treatment-resistant depression that had not responded to two different antidepressant drugs. The study, which was not randomly controlled, found that after three months five of the patients remained depression-free. Two others continued to show an improvement in their symptoms.
Psilocybin is a Class A drug, possession of which can result in a maximum prison sentence of seven years. It is also listed as a ‘Schedule One’ controlled drug, meaning that it cannot be prescribed by doctors. Depression affects around one in five people at some time in their lives.
Most patients respond positively to medical treatments and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), but around a fifth cannot be helped and are classified as having treatment-resistant depression.
PUBLISHED: 17 May 2016 . By Ben Spencer
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