Mental Health Awareness Month

Sunny May marks Mental Health Awareness Month. Observed in the US since 1949, the goal is to fight stigma and raise awareness both of the mental health conditions themselves, and the help that is available. Every year more barriers are broken by normalising and publicising conversations about mental health. This is essential, as for many people, a condition such as depression or anxiety will likely have colored their whole lives.

Mental Health Awareness Month comes as a very exciting study on psilocybin as a treatment for depression comes out. Here we report on it in full, for all steps towards treating debilitating mental health conditions is a win this Mental Health Awareness Month — and every month for that matter!

The Struggle with Depression

“[Depression is] like it’s physically hard to open your mouth and make the words come out. They don’t come out smooth…they come out in chunks as if from a crushed-ice dispenser.”⁠ — Ned Vizzini, It’s Kind of a Funny Story

One of the hallmarks of depression is a distinct feeling of loneliness even when surrounded by loving friends and family. Plus the fact that your own brain cells seem to refuse to talk to one another, making it difficult to open up your mind to new ideas and experiences. Through the years, science has made it possible to treat symptoms with a cocktail of talk therapy and antidepressant drugs (such as Zoloft and escitalopram). But the relief they provide from the pain is often not sustainable. It’s a fix that requires a person to spend their hard-earned money on costly Big Pharma meds. This is instead of food, rent, or priceless experiences with their loved ones on holiday. 

In short, mainstream antidepressants are not the cure to the worsening mental health crisis. They are a band-aid solution. 

The Rise of Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy

Recent studies have found that psychedelics, such as the compound psilocybin in magic mushrooms and truffles, may work just as well as ⁠— if not better than⁠ — traditional antidepressants. The therapeutic effects of psilocybin on people living with depression work by “opening up” their minds. By replacing broken neural connections and growing new ones, psilocybin can help to ease the feeling of inner loneliness. At last, your brain regions can talk to one another without the roadblocks to their connectivity. And when compared to the usual antidepressants? Psilocybin’s effects are far from temporary. When paired with talk therapy, relief from depression can last six months up to a year after the last dose.

(Photo via Wholecelium)

The latest piece of evidence to support this claim comes from Imperial College London’s Centre for Psychedelic Research. They analysed brain scans from nearly 60 participants taking part in psychedelic-assisted therapy for depression. The team say that the results are key to understanding psilocybin’s healing effects on the depressed brain. 

And it’s not just a theory! 

Today, psilocybin is one of many psychedelics (including LSD, MDMA, and DMT) being studied as potential treatment for serious mental conditions. Clinical trials have tested a lab-made version of psilocybin. This has little to no trippy effects, to solely treat the symptoms of anxiety and depression. 

Psilocybin Lasts Longer than Big Pharma Antidepressant 

The updated finding were a combination from two previous studies. These showed that participants who got positive results from psilocybin-assisted therapy had stronger brain connections than those who didn’t take psilocybin. This wasn’t only seen during the period in which psilocybin was given, but extending up to three weeks later. The brain scans revealed neural networks “opening up”, which was linked to self-reported recovery from their depression. 

(Photo via Wholecelium; Optical illusion by Giorgio Trovato on Unsplash)

On the other hand, those who were treated with a mainstream antidepressant ⁠— in this case, escitalopram ⁠— failed to show the same growth in brain connections in a stable, long-lasting manner. The results show that psilocybin is more than just an alternative to Big Pharma antidepressants; it works in a completely different way.

The study, which was published in Nature Medicine, paves the way for further research in psilocybin-based therapy. Thanks to the findings being the same for two separate trials, scientists now have ample reason to see psilocybin in a new light. An entheogenic key that can unlock the rigid shackles of the brain during depression. Just think about it. When thought patterns have been frozen in catatonia for so long, could psilocybin help fix the brain where traditional therapies have failed?

Psilocybin: Weeks of Antidepressant Benefits

The first data from the previous two studies at Imperial College London showed a drop in depressive symptoms. However, it was unclear how the psilocybin caused this. One thing is constant, however: psilocybin works faster and lasts longer than a traditional antidepressant. The relief psilocybin-assisted therapy can give a person is not just for a couple of days after. The warmth can stretch out for weeks on end at the very least! 

(Photo by Brian Garcia on Unsplash)

Professor Robin Carhart-Harris, the paper’s senior author and former Head of the Imperial Centre for Psychedelic Research, explained how psilocybin bested a major drug in terms of treating depression:

“The effect seen with psilocybin is consistent across two studies, related to people getting better, and was not seen with a conventional antidepressant.

“In previous studies we had seen a similar effect in the brain when people were scanned whilst on a psychedelic. But here we’re seeing it weeks after treatment for depression, which suggests a ‘carry over’ of the acute drug action.”

Psilocybin vs. SSRI Antidepressant

So! How did psilocybin fare against mainstream antidepressants, aka selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)? In this new study, the Imperial-led researchers looked into the brain scans of participants from the previous two trials. This meant almost 60 people living with depression. The first study was an open-label trial in which psilocybin was given to participants with treatment-resistant depression (aka “Nothing has worked so far”). The second study right after was a randomised control trial for general depression (aka “Meds have worked somewhat”) in which psilocybin was compared to the SSRI escitalopram. 

(Photo by Haley Lawrence on Unsplash)

A crucial part of the psilocybin testing process was talk therapy. This was given to all study participants by registered mental health experts. The subjects also had their brains scanned via fMRI. Before, and one day or three weeks following the last dose of psilocybin.

In both these trials that used psilocybin, the participants rated themselves via questionnaires. These ratings were in terms of how well they coped with depressive symptoms. Deeper scrutiny into the brain scans showed renewed neural connections⁠. It also showed dramatic change in which “frozen” regions in the brain started to talk to one another once again. 

Higher Chances of Relief at Six Months

How exactly did the participants improve their depressive symptoms after taking psilocybin? The researchers pointed towards a growth of new neural connections in the brain, which are separated in patients with depression. The study uncovered a link between this “opening up” of the brain via psilocybin, and improved symptoms, in both instances. In short: the times in which the scans lit up like fireworks was when the person’s brain cells began talking to one another once more. And that only happened to those who took psilocybin…

(Photo by Greg Rosenke on Unsplash)

Lead researcher Carhart-Harris said that more studies will have to be done to see just how far psilocybin can go as a treatment:

“We don’t yet know how long [at most] the changes in brain activity seen with psilocybin therapy [can] last and we need to do more research to understand this.

“We do know that some people relapse It may be that after a while their brains revert to the rigid patterns of activity we see in depression.”

For now, the researchers have said that initial changes in brain activity, one day after taking psilocybin, could predict how long such an improvement will last. If the brain scans show more active regions after psilocybin therapy, then the odds are greater that the same relief will remain after six months.

Psilocybin: Real Alternative to Antidepressants

Bear in mind that the researchers are still analysing the participants’ follow-up data. So, we don’t know yet the full extent of psilocybin’s antidepressant effect. And though the results look promising for the psychedelic renaissance, they were made under tightly-controlled research settings with lab-regulated doses of psilocybin. There’s also the element of professional talk therapy taking place before, during, and after the doses. So! Before anyone living with depression wants to self-medicate using psilocybin without the proper set and setting, a trip sitter, and talk therapy given by a licensed professional, know this. One must not expect a cure-all result simply from going at it alone.

Professor David Nutt, Head of the Imperial Centre for Psychedelic Research, spoke about psilocybin’s potential as mental health treatment:

“These findings are important because for the first time we find that psilocybin works differently from conventional antidepressants. It makes the brain more flexible and fluid, and less entrenched in the negative thinking patterns associated with depression. This supports our initial prediction and confirms psilocybin could be a real alternative to depression treatments.”

Potential Psilocybin Trials for Anorexia and Addiction

In the paper, the researchers wrote that people who live with major depression “often exhibit a negative cognitive bias, characterised by pessimism, poor cognitive flexibility, rigid thought patterns and negative fixations regarding ‘self’ and the future.” 

The same symptoms listed are also present in patients diagnosed with eating disorders, such as anorexia. It also cover those struggling with alcoholism or substance abuse. 

(Photo via Wholecelium)

Professor Carhart-Harris spoke of the team’s plans to see if psilocybin-based therapy can work just as well for treating such conditions:

“One exciting implication of our findings is that we have discovered a fundamental mechanism via which psychedelic therapy works not just for depression — but other mental illnesses, such as anorexia or addiction. We now need to test if this is the case, and if it is, then we have found something important.”

Science Is on Our Side

The latest findings from Imperial College London join the mounting evidence for decriminalising psilocybin for therapeutic use. In a world that needs mental healthcare now more than ever, experts are coming out in support of rescheduling psilocybin out of the list of controlled substances. Even the notoriously tough US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has asked to increase its quota of access to psilocybin for the sake of research. And you’ll bet our mushies there’ll be much bigger milestones ahead. Indeed, with the help of magic mushrooms and magic truffles, there is no other way for humanity to go but up!