Magic Mushrooms and Depression: Hype or Help?

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A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences examined how hallucinating with psilocybin (the active ingredient in so-called, “magic mushrooms”) may help depressed patients. In a split publication (first abstract here), researchers looked a brain activity of volunteers who got the drug intravenously. The first part showed decreased activity in an area of the brain known to be elevated in depression.

In a follow up, not yet published, they looked at participants’ recollections of positive memories. These were enhanced while under the drug. The combination of the two results suggests that psilocybin may have a use in treating depression, although this is still a very early stage of investigation – all participants in these studies were healthy and did not suffer from depression.

Interestingly, psilocybin (as well as LSD) is already known to be a strong promoter of serotonin effects and binds to the same receptors. Users, for example, note that SSRI type drugs seem to block the hallucinogenic properties of these drugs. So, for example, if someone is already being treated for depression with Prozac, they may be unable to experience the “magic” in the mushrooms.

The bottom line for researchers will be to show that psilocybin, which affects the same brain systems as SSRIs, has some added benefit not seen with current drugs. After all, if treating depression is the goal, adding hallucinations to the mix probably isn’t warranted. And it may come down to that in the end – reinventing Prozac.

Still, pursuing such research will likely find other properties we’d like to know about. For instance, what is the link between taking a fungus derived substance and visual/auditory hallucinations? It has to be more than just stimulus of serotonin – after all, we don’t see those effects with commonly prescribed antidepressants. The value may be in finding out how cognition and emotional experience is tied to different parts of the brain. For example, how is it that people have religious experiences while on hallucinogens? No one really knows. Studies of the type mentioned above are one step on a long road to understanding more complex brain functions.

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