Magic mushrooms may help treat depression, researchers say

Psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, may help people with depression, based on two studies that suggest that the psychedelic could have an enduring effect on patients.

Professor David Nutt, the controversial sacked government drugs advisor, claimed this recent research proved what a mistake it was to abandon therapeutic psychedelic drugs more than 50 years ago.

Professor Nutt's team, at Imperial College London, hope to test the hallucinogen on depressed patients who have not benefited from antidepressants or behavioural therapy.

The first study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, involved scanning the brains of 30 people given the drug intravenously to measure changes in blood flow and activity. Activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, which is hyperactive in depression, was consistently lowered.

A second study, to be published January 26 in the British Journal of Psychiatry and conducted by the same researchers, found that psilocybin enhanced volunteers' recollections of positive personal memories, compared with those who took a placebo.

“Our findings support the idea that psilocybin facilitates access to personal memories and emotions,” Carhart-Harris said in a statement. “This effect needs to be investigated further but it suggests that used in combination with psychotherapy, psilocybin might help people recall positive life events and reverse pessimistic mindsets.”

Nutt cautioned that the new research was very preliminary and involved only small numbers of people.

"We're not saying go out there and eat magic mushrooms," he said. "But...this drug has such a fundamental impact on the brain that it's got to be meaningful -- it's got to be telling us something about how the brain works. So we should be studying it and optimising it if there's a therapeutic benefit."

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