According to the WHO an estimated 4% of the global population suffer from some sort of depression, which amounts to about 280 million people. Treatment for depression comes in different forms, usually a type of therapy, drugs, or a combination of both.
One of the more common classes of drugs used to treat depression is selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs. In 2021 in the UK there were 83.4 million prescribed items of SSRI medications, and a record number of people are attending NHS therapy sessions.
However, for some people who live with depression, traditional treatments don’t work. This is known as treatment-resistant depression and is thought to affect as many as 46% of all people diagnosed with depression.
A study headed by Robin Von Rotz was conducted at the Psychiatric University Hospital in Zürich, Switzerland. Its aim was to address the suggestion that psilocybin, the active ingredient in so-called magic mushrooms that grow wild across the globe, could be an alternative medication in the fight against depression.
In the double-blind, randomised, controlled study 52 participants who had all been diagnosed with major depressive disorder were administered either a moderate dose of psilocybin or a placebo, as well as therapy sessions.
Standardised tests at the beginning of the study and again at the end were used to determine the severity levels of the 52 participants, helping researchers to assess the efficacy of psilocybin for the treatment of depression.
Robin Von Rotz and his fellow researchers found that the “results suggest that a single, moderate dose of psilocybin significantly reduces depressive symptoms compared to a placebo condition for at least two weeks.”
These results build on results from previous studies that also indicate positive responses in the treatment of depression by the use of psilocybin.
A study conducted by the Imperial Centre for Psychedelic Research, headed by Prof David Nutt and published in the spring of 2022 found that psilocybin could ‘open up’ the brains of people living with depression. Its aim was to compare standard SSRI treatment with psilocybin treatment.
Prof Nutt said the study “supports our initial predictions and confirms psilocybin could be a real alternative approach to depression treatments.”
There are approximately 180 known psilocybin-containing mushrooms, including Psilocybe semilanceata (Liberty Caps), Psilocybe cubensis, and Psilocybe azurescens which are known to be some of the strongest.
Research on how psilocybin could help doctors treat patients suffering not just from depression, but other conditions including anxiety, PTSD and anorexia began in the 1950s and 1960s.
Prof Timothy Leary, the famous American psychologist and advocate of psychedelic drugs, established the Harvard Psilocybin Project in the late 1950s with students and academics including the British author Aldous Huxley. The aim was to research the therapeutic potential of psilocybin and discover ways to use it in modern medicine.
During the two years from 1960 to 1962, the project conducted many, sometimes controversial studies and experiments involving psychedelics, including the infamous Marsh Chapel Experiment which was conducted to understand the link between psychedelics and divinity better.
All research on psilocybin and other substances included in new drug laws passed in the early 1970s effectively halted until recent years. In the past decade, there has been an explosion of research into the therapeutic qualities of psychedelic drugs, including studies in the use of DMT for people that have had a stroke and ketamine treatment from alcoholism.
Governments across the world seem to be opening up to the potential of these previously vilified substances and the changes we are currently seeing could lead to new exciting discoveries for the uses of the plants and fungi that grow amongst us.