A new study has found that psilocybin, the active compound found in magic mushrooms, could be at least as effective as a leading antidepressant medication in people with moderate-to-severe depression.
The study, carried out by researchers at the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London, aimed to assess the therapeutic potential of the ‘psychedelic’ compound.
Researchers compared two sessions of psilocybin therapy with a six-week course of a selective serotonin uptake inhibitor called escitalopram in 59 people with moderate-to-severe depression.
Study volunteers received an oral dose of psilocybin in a specialist clinical setting, while listening to a curated music playlist. They were guided through their experiences by a psychological support team, including registered psychiatrists.
All volunteers who took part in the study received the same level of psychological support.
The results, published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), find that while depression scores were reduced in both treatment groups, the reductions occurred ‘more quickly’ in the psilocybin group and were also ‘greater in magnitude’.
Those treated with psilocybin also demonstrated marked improvements across a range of subjective measures, including the ability to feel pleasure and express emotions, and also showed greater reductions in anxiety and suicidal ideations as well as increased feelings of wellbeing.
The researchers cautioned that the main comparison between psilocybin and the antidepressant was not statistically significant, adding that larger trials over a longer period and with more participants would be required to show if the compound can perform as well as or more effectively than an established antidepressant.
“These results comparing two doses of psilocybin therapy with 43 daily doses of one of the best performing SSRI antidepressants help contextualise psilocybin’s promise as a potential mental health treatment. Remission rates were twice as high in the psilocybin group than the escitalopram group,” said Robin Carhart-Harris, head of the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial.
“One of the most important aspects of this work is that people can clearly see the promise of properly delivered psilocybin therapy by viewing it compared with a more familiar, established treatment in the same study. Psilocybin performed very favourably in this head-to-head,” he added.