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New Study Will Test Magic Mushrooms as Treatment for Depression


Psychedelic drugs could "benefit millions of people" but their illegal status has banned them from scientific research since the '60s. A new clinical trial could end the 50-year ban.

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Photo via Shutterstock

Shrooms may help “reset” abnormal functioning of the brain. Photo via Shutterstock

Starting next year, scientists may begin testing psilocybin (the active ingredient in “Magic Mushrooms”) on patients suffering from clinical depression. The study would end a 50-year ban on using psychedelic drugs in scientific research.

The study, which will involve dozens of patients who have failed to respond to conventional treatment for depression, is the idea of Professor David Nutt and Dr Robin Carhart-Harris at Imperial College’s Neuropsychopharmacology Centre in London. They argue that psychedelic drugs could have wide and varied benefits for millions of people and they are demanding an end to the stigma.

There is some evidence that psychedelic drugs have the potential to “loosen” the rigid structures of the brain and “reset” abnormal brain functioning if administered in a controlled way. But studying these drugs presents a catch-22, since the drugs are illegal. “It’s difficult to study LSD and psilocybin to see if they have medical use because they are schedule 1,” says Dr. Carhart. “And they are only classed as schedule 1 because they are deemed to have no medical use.” Before hallucinogens like LSD and psilocybin were deemed schedule 1 in 1971, LSD was seen as a sort of wonder drug. In fact, The Guardian reports that during the mid-60s there were “1,000 academic papers investigating [LSD’s] effects on 40,000 people,” and the drug was thought to have the potential to treat addiction, depression, and headaches.

The first two research papers on LSD since the ’70s were published just this year by drug policy reformer and Beckley Foundation founder Amanda Feilding. And this new study should finally get under way by next year after a long period of limbo while Dr. Carhart-Harris and Prof. Nutt’s battled with bureaucratic red tape. So far, they have already completed an MRI scan on 15 patients under the influence of psychobilin to see the cognitive effects.

Prof. Nutt, who was fired from his position as chair of the UK government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs in 2009 after saying that horse riding was more dangerous than ecstasy, says that the stigma against LSD “was unquestionably one of the most effective pieces of disinformation in the history of mankind.” He adds that psychedelics are “not trivial drugs,” but that compared to “drugs that kill thousands of people a year, like alcohol, tobacco and heroin, they have a very safe track record and, as far as we know, no one has died.”

And though psychedelics may be found to have therapeutic powers, that does not mean they should be self-administered. “Self-medication is definitely a no-no from my perspective,” says Dr. Carhart. “These drugs are powerful and the therapeutic model we are going to adhere to is quite specific in that it emphasizes that the drug needs to be taken in the right environment and with the right support.”