Magic mushrooms as good as antidepressants says biggest study of its kind


Researchers at Imperial gave participants psilocybin in a setting with trained psychiatrists and therapists. (Credits: PA)

Psilocybin, the active chemical in magic mushrooms, may be as effective as a leading antidepressant medication in a therapeutic setting.

In one of the most rigorous studies to date, researchers at Imperial College London compared the effect of psilocybin to a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), in a group of 59 people with moderate to severe depression.

Researchers found that symptoms of depression were reduced more quickly and effectively in the psilocybin group than the SSRI group over a six week period.

However, researchers have warned that the study was not large enough, or rigorous enough, to draw any sure conclusions.

But the results, which were conducted at Imperial’s Centre for Psychedelic Research (CPR), have excited researchers, amid a surge of mental health problems since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

‘These findings provide further support for the growing evidence base that shows that in people with depression, psilocybin offers an alternative treatment to traditional antidepressants,’ said Professor David Nutt, principal investigator on the study.

‘In our study, psilocybin worked faster than escitalopram and was well tolerated, with a very different adverse effects profile. We look forward to further trials, which if positive should lead to psilocybin becoming a licensed medicine.’

Researchers found that remission rates in the psilocybin group were twice as high than the SSRI group.

Psilocybin is the active ingredient in magic mushrooms (Credits: PA)

Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, head of the CPR, said: ‘One of the most important aspects of this work is that people can clearly see the promise of properly delivered psilocybin therapy by viewing it compared with a more familiar, established treatment in the same study.

‘Psilocybin performed very favourably in this head-to-head.’

The study compared two groups, one which received a dose of psilocybin in a clinical setting twice over a six week period, and another that received a dose of escitalopram twice in the same setting.

Both groups had access to psychological support and registered psychiatrists – which is why the researchers are warning people not to try this experiment themselves at home.

‘Context is crucial for these studies and all volunteers received therapy during and after their psilocybin sessions,’ said Dr Rosalind Watts, clinical lead of the trial.

‘Our team of therapists were on hand to offer full support through sometimes difficult emotional experiences.’

Despite the positive results, researchers admitted the study had a number of drawbacks which would need to be fixed to draw firm conclusions: there was no straight placebo group, too few participants and a largely white male cohort of participants.

However, the psilocybin group reported fewer cases of dry mouth, anxiety, drowsiness and sexual dysfunction than the escitalopram group, and a similar rate of adverse events overall.


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