Magic mushrooms could replace antidepressants in just five years, according to an expert in the field.
Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, head of Imperial College London‘s Centre for Psychedelic Research, made the claim.
He is leading a team investigating how psilocybin mushrooms can ease depression symptoms compared to standard medication.
Although the results are pending, the scientists claim the drug is giving participants a ‘release’, while antidepressants leave them feeling ‘blunted’.
Magic mushrooms could replace antidepressants in just five years, a scientists has said (stock)
Dr Carhart-Harris told The Independent: ‘I would imagine if you had some bookmakers doing the odds, there would be strong odds on that [psychedelic therapy] will be licensed sometime in the next five to 10 years – maybe sooner.’
Antidepressants have a list of side effects ‘twice as long’ as magic mushrooms, which have little evidence of causing addiction or the risk of overdosing.
However, the researchers admit the Class A drug can cause ‘hellish’ psychedelic experiences that force users to confront past traumas.
The Imperial study is one of the first UK trials comparing psilocybin mushrooms to antidepressants.
In the UK, 19.7 per cent of people over 16 showed symptoms of depression or anxiety in 2014, Mental Health Foundation statistics reveal.
And more than 7.3million people were prescribed antidepressants in 2017-to-2018, according to a Freedom of Information request.
In the US, over 16.1million adults suffer from depression every year, according to the Anxiety and Depression Society of America.
And around 12.7 per cent of people over 12 take antidepressants every month, an analysis from the National Center for Health Statistics revealed.
Fresh, but not dried, magic mushrooms were legal in the UK until the Drugs Act 2005 made them a Class A substance.
In the US, psilocybin, the active ingredient in the mushrooms, is listed in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, making it illegal to grow or possess.
In the ongoing Imperial trial, around 60 people with moderate-to-severe depression will receive psilocybin mushrooms alongside a therapy session.
Evidence suggests therapy and ‘psychedelic experiences’ must be combined to give patients the best alternative over antidepressants, Dr Carhart-Harris said.
The participants will be randomly selected to receive a placebo or escitalopram, with neither the patients nor the scientists knowing who got what.
Escitalopram is a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRIs) – a type of drug often give to depressed patients.
Drugs of this class are thought to increase levels of the ‘feel good’ chemical messenger serotonin in the brain.
Serotonin is usually reabsorbed, however blocking this uptake may cause more of the neurotransmitter to pass between nerve cells.
Results of the trial are pending, however, Dr Carhart-Harris suggests magic mushrooms seem to have the edge so far.
CAN MAGIC MUSHROOMS TREAT DEPRESSION?
Psilocybin is one of several psychedelic drugs that have recently reemerged from the shadows with promises to treat mental illnesses and addictions.
Portrayals in stone carvings and rock paintings that predate recorded history suggest people discovered the hallucinogenic powers of ‘magic’ mushrooms as early as 9000 BC.
The fungi were once the centre piece of religious ceremonies.
In 1959 a chemist at the pharmaceutical company Albert Hofmann identified and separated out the psychoactive compound in mushrooms, known as psilocybin.
Between 1961 and 1965, Sandoz sold the compound as a psychotherapeutic medicine called Indocybin.
It was quickly discontinued when it was widely misused to ‘trip’ or hallucinate.
Psilocybin has since been tightly regulated in the US where it is treated as equally illicit to heroin.
Fresh, but not dried, magic mushrooms were legal in the UK until the Drugs Act 2005 made them Class A.
But as depression continues to surge, scientists are looking for inventive options to treat the disorder.
Psilocybin is a similar shape to the ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter serotonin and binds to some of the same receptors in the brain.
It appears in brain scans to treat depression by making the amygdala more responsive to emotions.
And patients are better able to process these feelings and feel relief from their symptoms weeks later.
Other research suggests the drug ‘resets’ neural circuits that create negative feedback loops in patients’ brains.
‘If you ask people who are taking SSRIs chronically, they often say “I feel blunted”,’ he said.
‘With psilocybin therapy they say the opposite, they talk about an emotional release, a reconnection, and this key emotional centre being more responsive.’
Psilocybin is a similar shape to serotonin and binds to some of the same receptors in the brain.
Although the trial seems promising, the treatment may not be suitable for everyone, such as those with psychosis.
Speaking of the side effects, Dr Carhart-Harris said: ‘We call it a “challenging psychological experience” and we’re honest with people that it can be hellish.’
He added, however, his team are prepared for such episodes.
If psilocybin mushrooms overtake SSRIs in effectiveness and popularity, it could have a huge impact on the power of big pharma, Dr Carhart-Harris added.
Imperial’s new Centre for Psychedelic Research is also planning to investigate how psilocybin mushrooms impact eating disorders, as well as the effect of the hallucinogenic drug DMT on the brain.
And King’s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience is investigating whether psilocybin therapy can benefit those whose depression is resistant to antidepressants.
Dr James Rucker, of the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s, agrees there is a chance magic mushrooms may be licensed for depression in just five years.
He stresses, however, ketamine-based drugs are only just being licensed for the disorder after early trials took place in the 1990s.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first US clinical trials using psilocybin from magic mushrooms to treat depression in August last year.
Although illegal, people have long been experimenting with ‘micro dosing’ magic mushrooms to self-medicate anxiety, depression and low mood.
The trend, which began in San Francisco around a decade ago, involves taking a low dose of 10 or 20 micrograms, which is approximately a tenth of the amount needed to get a ‘high’.
A 2018 study found microdoses of psychedelic drugs could induce a state of unconstrained thought without the ‘bad trips’ that often come with high doses of such substances.
People who take a small amount of the substance have more ideas about how to solve problems and came up with more original ideas, research suggested.