Researchers found out that patients taking psilocybin to treat depression show reduced symptoms weeks after treatment following a ‘reset’ of their brain activity.
A study in which researchers from Imperial College London used psilocybin — the psychoactive compound that occurs naturally in magic mushrooms — to treat a small number of patients with depression in whom conventional treatment had failed.
Published in the journal Scientific Reports, the researchers describe patient-reported benefits lasting up to five weeks after treatment, and believe the psychedelic compound may effectively reset the activity of key brain circuits known to play a role in depression.
Comparison of images of patients’ brains before and one day after they received the drug treatment revealed changes in brain activity associated with marked and lasting reductions in patients with depressive symptoms.
Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, Head of Psychedelic Research at Imperial, who led the study, said: “We have shown for the first time clear changes in brain activity in depressed people treated with psilocybin after failing to respond to conventional treatments.
“Several of our patients described feeling ‘reset’ after the treatment and often used computer analogies. For example, one said he felt like his brain had been ‘defragged’ like a computer hard drive, and another said he felt ‘rebooted’. Psilocybin may be giving these individuals the temporary ‘kick start’ they need to break out of their depressive states and these imaging results do tentatively support a ‘reset’ analogy. Similar brain effects to these have been seen with electroconvulsive therapy.”
In the recent Imperial trial, the first with psilocybin in depression, 20 patients with treatment-resistant form of the disorder were given two doses of psilocybin (10 mg and 25 mg), with 1 week interval.
Nineteen patients underwent initial brain imaging and a second scan one day after the high dose treatment. Carhart-Harris and team used two main brain imaging methods to measure changes in blood flow and the crosstalk between brain regions, with patients reporting their depressive symptoms through completing clinical questionnaires.
Immediately following treatment with psilocybin, patients reported a decrease in depressive symptoms — corresponding with anecdotal reports of an ‘after-glow’ effect characterised by improvements in mood and stress relief.
They also found increased stability in another brain network, previously linked to psilocybin’s immediate effects as well as to depression itself.