DR MICHAEL MOSLEY: Could magic mushrooms be the new Prozac?
DR MICHAEL MOSLEY: As scientists find that a powerful hallucinogenic can ‘reboot’ the brain… Could magic mushrooms be the new Prozac?
Many of our most effective and lifesaving drugs are based on unpleasant and even toxic substances.
Penicillin, for example, the antibiotic that has saved countless lives, is produced by fungi called penicillium, which appear as mould on bread and melons.
And Botox, widely used for everything from reducing wrinkles to relieving migraines, is a neurotoxin – it destroys nerves.
A chemical called psilocybin, originally found in magic mushrooms (file image) and known to produce vivid, disturbing hallucinations, is being hailed as a potential lifesaver for people with depression
The bacteria that produced it, Clostridium botulinum, were first isolated from rancid sausages.
Now a chemical called psilocybin, originally found in magic mushrooms and known to produce vivid, disturbing hallucinations, is being hailed as a potential lifesaver for people with depression. So is the hype justified?
How the drug sparked immediate improvements
Depression is a widespread problem. But while drugs used to treat it are effective for many, a significant number of those with severe depression – up to 30 per cent – don’t respond.
That is why there is growing interest in psilocybin. It not only seems to be able to treat cases of depression that are resistant to other drugs, but it also acts in a completely novel way.
There have been a number of promising short-term studies involving psilocybin, but it was the results of a very recent study that really grabbed my attention.
Depression is a widespread problem. But while drugs used to treat it are effective for many, a significant number of those with severe depression – up to 30% – don’t respond. (File image)
In this experiment, scientists at the New York University School of Medicine looked at the long-term impact of giving people with cancer who were also suffering from depression a single dose of psilocybin.
To their surprise, they found that psilocybin produced ‘immediate, substantial, and sustained improvements in anxiety and depression’. Patients said they felt less hopeless afterwards, and that taking the drug just once had improved their quality of life.
But what was particularly impressive is that, unlike conventional antidepressants, the effects persisted. In fact, nearly five years on from taking part in the original experiment, more than 70 per cent of the patients reported continuing benefit.
More from Dr Michael Mosley For The Mail On Sunday…
‘My mind was sent into hyperdrive’
I have a particular interest in all of this because ten years ago I volunteered to be a guinea pig in the UK’s first scientific study of psilocybin. It was one of the strangest experiences of my life.
Even though I knew I would be taking it in a carefully controlled environment, I was apprehensive.
Psilocybin has powerful hallucinogenic effects, something I had never experienced before. Like crack cocaine and heroin, psilocybin is a Class A drug, meaning it is illegal to possess or use it.
But the researchers from Imperial College, London, assured me that taking it would be safe.
Before my dose, I was put through a battery of psychological tests to check my mental state. I was also warned there was a risk of ‘a bad trip’.
I asked Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, one of the experts running the trial, what I was likely to experience. ‘It can be quite dramatic,’ he told me.
‘The last volunteer said it was an intense, spiritual experience – that his whole sense of self dissolved, and he only existed as a concept.’
I have a particular interest in all of this because ten years ago I volunteered to be a guinea pig in the UK’s first scientific study of psilocybin. For an instant after the drug was injected into my veins, there was nothing. Then it was like that moment in a Star Trek film when the Enterprise goes into warp drive. (File image)
I think this was intended to be reassuring, but it wasn’t. I didn’t want to find out what it was like to exist as a concept.
After a thorough physical examination, I was asked to go into a brain-scanner, so the team could map in detail how my brain reacted. Then the drug was injected into my veins.
For an instant there was nothing. Then it was like that moment in a Star Trek film when the Enterprise goes into warp drive.
The walls of the scanner dissolved and I took off to the stars. I saw intense colours and patterns.
It was beautiful and disturbing. It was also extremely frustrating because I wanted to have someone to share the experience with, and I was all alone in a metal tube.
I was later told my brain had produced a very intense response.
Patients liken it to resetting the brain
After about ten minutes, doctors had collected enough data, so they let me out of the scanner. Although I could now feel the effects wearing off, I still felt most unusual and I had an uncontrollable urge to talk and talk.
I have never suffered from serious depression or anxiety, so taking psilocybin didn’t produce any obvious long-term impact on my mood. But what my scans (and those of others) revealed is that psilocybin really does have a remarkable impact on the brain.
When you are in a psilocybin-induced psychedelic state, your brain looks like that of someone who is having intense dreams.
Some areas of the brain also become hyperconnected, which allows new and increased communication between its different areas.
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The most impressive changes, however, occur in people with anxiety or depression, where the drug seems to reset the activity of key brain circuits.
As Dr Carhart-Harris explains: ‘Several patients describe feeling “reset” after the treatment, and often used computer analogies.
‘For example, one said he felt as if his brain had been “defragged” like a computer hard drive, and another said he felt “rebooted”.’
Whatever the mechanism, it seems psilocybin gives many people with depression the temporary kickstart they need to break out of their depressive state.
No one is seriously suggesting that people who are depressed treat themselves with Class A drugs. Indeed, there is plenty of evidence that people with serious mental conditions are at particular risk from taking hallucinogens, which could make existing conditions worse. But it is a genuinely promising area of research.
So much so that the US regulators, the Food and Drug Administration, announced a couple of months ago that they are treating the use of psilocybin as a ‘breakthrough therapy’ – something they do only when they have evidence a drug is likely to be better than anything currently available.
A number of companies are testing psilocybin for the treatment of severe depression or depression that is resistant to other drugs.
It would be great if we had a new treatment. And it would be rather surprising if that breakthrough came from a mushroom.
Why a garden will lift the gloom
One thing GPs are being encouraged to do for patients with depression or anxiety is recommend that they get involved with an activity – so-called ‘social prescribing’.
In the Shetland Islands, for example, you can be given a nature prescription, with your doctor suggesting walking, gardening or some other activity that connects you with the great outdoors.
A few years ago, I took part in an experiment with Professor Angela Clow, a psychologist from the University of Westminster.
We took a group of people who felt stressed and randomly allocated them to a range of different activities, including a form of group gardening, where they were encouraged to work with others.
After eight weeks we noticed significant improvements in their stress levels, as measured by psychological questionnaires, but also by measurements of cortisol, the stress hormone.
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