The Scottish Mail on Sunday

Dr Mosley: Magic mushrooms may beat depression

Antidepres­sants don’t help nearly a third of patients. So, as scientists find that powerful hallucinog­enic can ‘reboot’ the brain...


MANY of our most effective and lifesaving drugs are based on unpleasant and even toxic substances. Penicillin, for example, the antibiotic that has saved countless lives, is produced by fungi called penicilliu­m, which appear as mould on bread and melons.

And Botox, widely used for everything from reducing wrinkles to relieving migraines, is a neurotoxin – it destroys nerves. The bacteria that produced it, Clostridiu­m botulinum, were first isolated from rancid sausages.

Now a chemical called psilocybin, originally found in magic mushrooms and known to produce vivid, disturbing hallucinat­ions, is being hailed as a potential lifesaver for people with depression. So is the hype justified?


DEPRESSION is a widespread problem. But while drugs used to treat it are effective for many, a significan­t number of those with severe depression – up to 30 per cent – don’t respond. That is why there is growing interest in psilocybin. It not only seems to be able to treat cases of depression that are resistant to other drugs, but it also acts in a completely novel way.

There have been a number of promising short-term studies involving psilocybin, but it was the results of a very recent study that really grabbed my attention. In this experiment, scientists at the New York University School of Medicine looked at the long-term impact of giving people with cancer who were also suffering from depression a single dose of psilocybin.

To their surprise, they found that psilocybin produced ‘immediate, substantia­l, and sustained improvemen­ts in anxiety and depression’. Patients said they felt less hopeless afterwards, and that taking the drug just once had improved their quality of life.

But what was particular­ly impressive is that, unlike convention­al antidepres­sants, the effects persisted. In fact, nearly five years on from taking part in the original experiment, more than 70 per cent of the patients reported continuing benefit.


I HAVE a particular interest in all of this because ten years ago I volunteere­d to be a guinea pig in the UK’s first scientific study of psilocybin. It was one of the strangest experience­s of my life.

Even though I knew I would be taking it in a carefully controlled environmen­t, I was apprehensi­ve. Psilocybin has powerful hallucinog­enic effects, something I had never experience­d before. Like crack cocaine and heroin, psilocybin is a Class A drug, meaning it is illegal to possess or use it.

But the researcher­s from Imperial College, London, assured me that taking it would be safe. Before my dose, I was put through a battery of psychologi­cal tests to check my mental state. I was also warned there was a risk of ‘a bad trip’. I asked Dr Robin CarhartHar­ris, the expert who was running the trial, what I was likely to experience. ‘It can be quite dramatic,’ he told me. ‘The last volunteer said it was an intense, spiritual experience – that his whole sense of self dissolved, and he only existed as a concept.’

I think this was intended to be reassuring, but it wasn’t. I didn’t want to find out what it was like to exist as a concept.

After a thorough physical examinatio­n, I was asked to go into a brain-scanner, so the team could map in detail how my brain reacted. Then the drug was injected into my veins. For an instant there was nothing. Then it was like that moment in a Star Trek film when the Enterprise goes into warp drive.

The walls of the scanner dissolved and I took off to the stars. I saw intense colours and patterns.

It was beautiful and disturbing. It was also extremely frustratin­g because I wanted to have someone to share the experience with, and I was all alone in a metal tube.

I was later told my brain had produced a very intense response.


AFTER about ten minutes, doctors had collected enough data, so they let me out of the scanner. Although I could now feel the effects wearing off, I still felt most unusual and I had an uncontroll­able urge to talk and talk.

I have never suffered from serious depression or anxiety, so taking psilocybin didn’t produce any obvious long-term impact on my mood. But what my scans (and those of others) revealed is that psilocybin really does have a remarkable impact on the brain. When you are in a psilocybin­induced psychedeli­c state, your brain looks like that of someone who is having intense dreams.

Some areas of the brain also become hyperconne­cted, which allows new and increased communicat­ion between its different areas. The most impressive changes, however, occur in people with anxiety or depression, where the drug seems to reset the activity of key brain circuits. As Dr Carhart-Harris explains: ‘Several patients describe feeling “reset” after the treatment, and often used computer analogies.

‘For example, one said he felt as if his brain had been “defragged” like a computer hard drive, and another said he felt “rebooted”.’

Whatever the mechanism, it seems psilocybin gives many people with depression the temporary kickstart they need to break out of their depressive state.

No one is seriously suggesting that people who are depressed treat themselves with Class A drugs. Indeed, there is some evidence that those with serious mental conditions could be at increased risk from taking hallucinog­ens as they might make existing conditions worse. But it is a genuinely promising area of research.

So much so that the US regulators, the Food and Drug Administra­tion, announced a couple of months ago that they are treating the use of psilocybin as a ‘breakthrou­gh therapy’ – something they do only when they have evidence a drug is likely to be better than anything currently available.

A number of companies are testing psilocybin for the treatment of severe depression or depression that is resistant to other drugs.

It would be great if we had a new treatment. And it would be rather surprising if that breakthrou­gh came from a mushroom.

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