Scientists have discovered that psilocybin - the psychoactive substance found in magic mushrooms - could effectively ‘reset’ the brain activity of people with severe depression.
The small study by researchers at Imperial College found that when given to patients in whom conventional treatments had failed, the substance was able to have a positive long-lasting effect.
In fact, some five weeks after having administered the compound the researchers found they still had significantly reduced symptoms.
The researchers believe that psilocybin is able to effectively reset the activity of key brain circuits that are known to play a key role in depression.
In speaking to the patients after their treatment, Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, Head of Psychedelic Research at Imperial, who led the study, said:
“Several of our patients described feeling ‘reset’ after the treatment and often used computer analogies. For example, one said he felt like his brain had been ‘defragged’ like a computer hard drive, and another said he felt ‘rebooted’.
“Psilocybin may be giving these individuals the temporary ‘kick start’ they need to break out of their depressive states and these imaging results do tentatively support a ‘reset’ analogy. Similar brain effects to these have been seen with electroconvulsive therapy.”
While researchers have been testing the effectiveness of psychedelic drugs to combat depression and addiction before, this is the first time that psilocybin has been used in this way.
In the study, 20 patients who had treatment-resistant depression were given two doses of the drug with an initial large dose administered and then a smaller one a week later.
Using functional MRI scanning the researchers found that the effects were profound. Not only was there reduced blood flow in the amygdala - a region of the brain that processes emotional responses - but also increased stability in another region of the brain that had previously been linked to depression.
While the results from the study are promising, Dr Carhart-Harris remains cautious pointing out that this is very early on in the testing phase and that the study was very small.
Professor David Nutt, Edmond J. Safra, senior author of the paper adds: “Larger studies are needed to see if this positive effect can be reproduced in more patients. But these initial findings are exciting and provide another treatment avenue to explore.”