Magic mushroom ingredient may ease severe depression, study suggests

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A Compound in Psychedelic Mushrooms Could Treat Severe Depression

LONDON, May 17 (Reuters) - Psilocybin, the psychedelic compound in magic mushrooms, may one day be an effective treatment for patients with severe depression who fail to recover using other therapies, scientists said on Tuesday.

A small-scale pilot study of psilocybin's use in cases of treatment-resistant depression showed it was safe and effective, the British researchers said.

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Of 12 patients given the drug, all showed some decrease in symptoms of depression for at least three weeks. Seven continued to show a positive response at three months. Five remained in remission beyond the three months.

Robin Carhart-Harris, who led the study at Imperial College London's department of medicine, said the results, published in the Lancet Psychiatry journal, were striking.

Many patients described a profound experience, he said, and appeared to undergo a shift in the way they perceived the world.

"But we shouldn't get carried away with these results," he told reporters at a briefing in London. "This isn't a magic bullet. We're just learning how to do this treatment."

Magic mushrooms grow worldwide and have been used since ancient times, both for recreation and for religious rites.

British researchers led by David Nutt, a professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial, have been exploring the potential of psilocybin to ease severe forms of depression in people who don't respond to other treatments.

The World Health Organization estimates that some 350 million people worldwide are affected by depression, a common mental disorder characterized by sadness, loss of interest or pleasure, tiredness, feelings of guilt or low self-worth, disturbed sleep and appetite, and poor concentration.

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Many patients respond to treatment with anti depressants and cognitive behavioral therapy, but around 20 percent don't get better and are classed as having treatment-resistant depression.

Psilocybin acts on the serotonin system, suggesting it could be developed for treating depression. But hallucinogenic drugs can also cause unpleasant reactions, including anxiety and paranoia, so Nutt's team wanted to find out if psilocybin can be given safely.

The trial involved six men and six women, aged between 30 and 64, all diagnosed with treatment-resistant depression. They all went through a full screening process before being allowed to participate and they were fully supported before, during and after they received psilocybin.

The patients were given psilocybin capsules during two dosing sessions, seven days apart.

Blood pressure, heart rate and the self-reported intensity of the effects of psilocybin were monitored during each session, and the patients were seen by a psychiatrist the next day and one, two, three and five weeks after the second dose.

Carhart-Harris said no serious side effects were reported during the study, although all volunteers said they were slightly anxious before and during initial drug administration.

"Psychedelic drugs have potent psychological effects and are only given in our research when appropriate safeguards are in place," he said. "I wouldn't want members of the public thinking they can treat their own depressions by picking their own magic mushrooms. That kind of approach could be risky."

Nutt said the results showed that psilocybin "is safe and fast acting, so may - if administered carefully - have value for these patients."

RELATED: Look back at the controversy around the Silk Road Drugs site:

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Magic mushroom ingredient may ease severe depression, study suggests
Silk Road, the best-known underground marketplace for the trade of illegal drugs on the internet has been closed by the US authorities after an arrest of Ross William Ulbricht, alleged to be the owner of the site. The Silk Road website now shows seizure notice from the FBI, IRS and DEA. Thursday 3rd October 2013 © David Colbran/Alamy Live News
This artist rendering shows Ross William Ulbricht appearing in Federal Court in San Francisco on Friday, Oct. 4, 2013. A federal judge in San Francisco has postponed the bail hearing for Ulbricht who is being charged as the mastermind of Silk Road, an encrypted website where users could shop for drugs like heroin and LSD anonymously. (AP Photo/Vicki Behringer)
"This hidden site has been seized" is shown on the screenshot of the illegal internet retail platform "Silk Road 2.0" during a press conference at the Hesse Office of Criminal Investigations in Wiesbaden, Germany, 11 November 2014. German investigators have closed four retail platforms as part of "Operation Onymos." Photo: BORIS ROESSLER/dpa
This artist rendering shows Ross William Ulbricht, second from left, appearing in Federal Court with his public defender Brandon LeBlanc, left, in San Francisco on Friday, Oct. 4, 2013. U.S. Magistrate Judge Joseph Spero, right, postponed the bail hearing for Ulbricht who is being charged as the mastermind of Silk Road, an encrypted website where users could shop for drugs like heroin and LSD anonymously. (AP Photo/Vicki Behringer)
50 grams of Crystal Meth is shown on sale on the screenshot of the illegal internet retail platform "Silk Road 2.0" during a press conference at the Hesse Office of Criminal Investigations in Wiesbaden, Germany, 11 November 2014. German investigators have closed four retail platforms as part of "Operation Onymos." Photo: BORIS ROESSLER/dpa
Robert Faiella, center, a Florida Bitcoin exchanger, walks from the federal court house in New York Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014, after pleading guilty to federal charges that he helped smooth the way for drug transactions on the online marketplace Silk Road. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)
Robert Faiella, a Florida Bitcoin exchanger, walks from the federal court house in New York Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014, after pleading guilty to federal charges that he helped smooth the way for drug transactions on the online marketplace Silk Road. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)
Charles Shrem, center, the top executive of a New York City-based Bitcoin company, walks from the federal court house in New York Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014, after pleading guilty to federal charges that he helped smooth the way for drug transactions on the online marketplace Silk Road. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)
Charles Shrem, center, the top executive of a New York City-based Bitcoin company, walks from the federal court house in New York Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014, after pleading guilty to federal charges that he helped smooth the way for drug transactions on the online marketplace Silk Road. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)
This artist rendering shows Ross William Ulbricht, right, appearing in Federal Court with his public defender Brandon LeBlanc, left, in San Francisco on Friday, Oct. 4, 2013. U.S. Magistrate Judge Joseph Spero postponed the bail hearing for Ulbricht who is being charged as the mastermind of Silk Road, an encrypted website where users could shop for drugs like heroin and LSD anonymously. (AP Photo/Vicki Behringer)
FILE - This April 3, 2013 file photo shows bitcoin tokens in Sandy, Utah U.S. prosecutors say Monday, Jan. 27, 2014, that two men are charged with conspiring to commit money laundering by selling more than $1 million in Bitcoins to users of the black market website Silk Road, which lets users buy illegal drugs anonymously. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)
A Kyrgyz drug addict smokes after getting high from a heroin injection in Osh, southern Kyrgyzstan, Friday, March 25, 2005. Osh is a major transit point for drugs from Afghanistan and Tajikistan to Kazakhstan and Russia. Drug smugglers have exploited this Central Asian landscape for years, making it a major conduit for opium. Now, political instability is adding to concerns that smugglers may be bringing in something worse, nuclear material terrorists could use for fission weapons or crude "dirty bombs," a "new security threat," says the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. (AP Photo/Nadyr Sykmenov)
NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 13: Supporters of Ross Ulbricht, the alleged creator and operator of the Silk Road underground market, stand in front of a Manhattan federal court house on the first day of jury selection for his trial on January 13, 2015 in New York City. Ulbricht, who has pleaded not guilty, is accused by the US government of making millions of dollars from the Silk Road website which sold drugs and other illegal commodities anonymously. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 13: Supporters of Ross Ulbricht, the alleged creator and operator of the Silk Road underground market, stand in front of a Manhattan federal court house on the first day of jury selection for his trial on January 13, 2015 in New York City. Ulbricht, who has pleaded not guilty, is accused by the US government of making millions of dollars from the Silk Road website which sold drugs and other illegal commodities anonymously. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 13: Max Dickstein stands with other supporters of Ross Ulbricht, the alleged creator and operator of the Silk Road underground market, in front of a Manhattan federal court house on the first day of jury selection for his trial on January 13, 2015 in New York City. Ulbricht, who has pleaded not guilty, is accused by the US government of making millions of dollars from the Silk Road website which sold drugs and other illegal commodities anonymously. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 13: Max Dickstein stands with other upporters of Ross Ulbricht, the alleged creator and operator of the Silk Road underground market, in front of a Manhattan federal court house on the first day of jury selection for his trial on January 13, 2015 in New York City. Ulbricht, who has pleaded not guilty, is accused by the US government of making millions of dollars from the Silk Road website which sold drugs and other illegal commodities anonymously. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
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