Could Psilocybin Provide a New Route for Antidepressant Research?

By Jynto [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Psilocybin, a hallucinogenic compound that comes from magic mushrooms might offer new routes for antidepressant research, according to a new study published in The Lancet Psychiatry, a journal, in May 2016.

The Study

In a small trial that involved 12 subjects with treatment-resistant depression, researchers discovered psilocybin was safe and well tolerated. When the compound is used with supportive therapy, it helped reduce depression symptoms in about half of the study participant’s 90-days post-treatment.

The authors of the study warned that strong assumptions can’t be made about the therapeutic benefits of psilocybin, but the findings of this study shows that more research in this field is now necessary.

Lead study author Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris from the Imperial College London, in London, UK said, “This is the first time that psilocybin has been investigated as a potential treatment for major depression. Treatment-resistant depression is common, disabling and extremely difficult to treat.

New treatments are urgently needed, and our study shows that psilocybin is a promising area of future research. The results are encouraging and we now need larger trials to understand whether the effects we saw in this study translate into long-term benefits, and to study how psilocybin compares to other current treatments.”

Depression is a major burden on the public health system, it affects millions of people all around the world and costs the United States more than $200 billion each year. The most frequently used treatments for depression are cognitive behavioral therapy and antidepressants. However, it’s important to note, 1 in 5 patients with depression don’t respond to these types of treatment and may relapse.

Professor David Nutt, senior study author from Imperial College London said, “Previous animal and human brain imaging studies have suggested that psilocybin may have effects similar to other antidepressant treatments. Psilocybin targets the serotonin receptors in the brain, just as most antidepressants do, but it has a very different chemical structure to currently available antidepressants and acts faster than traditional antidepressants.”

The study involved 12 patients, 6 males and 6 females, with moderate to severe depression. The average length of mental illness for the participants was 17.8 years. The patients were categorized as having treatment-resistant depression, and having formerly had two unsuccessful courses of antidepressants lasting at least 6 weeks. Eleven of the participants had also received some type of psychotherapy. Patients were not included if they had a current or previous psychotic disorder, an immediate family member with a psychotic disorder, a history of suicide or mania or a current alcohol or drug dependency issue.

Patients attended two full days of treatment and receive a low dose of psilocybin 10 mg oral capsules and a higher dose of 25 mg one week later. Patients took the capsule while laying down on a bed, in a special room with low lights and music playing, while two psychiatrists sat on either side of the bed. The psychiatrists were present to provide support and to check the patients throughout the process by asking them how they were feeling.


One week post treatment, all patients showed some marked improvement in their depression symptoms. Eight of the twelve patients achieved temporary remission. By 3 months, seven patients continued to show improvement in symptoms and five were still in remission. Five patients showed some symptoms of relapse.

The data at the 3-month follow up show promising results, but more follow-up using detailed qualitative interviews with patients and their family could be very helpful in determining better treatment options in the future.

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