Study finds psychedelic may trigger depression remission for some people

A new study from Johns Hopkins University found that psilocybin, the psychoactive chemical found in 'magic mushrooms,' may be an effective treatment option for some people suffering from major depression. This finding builds upon previous research from Johns Hopkins that linked psilocybin with mental health benefits for people suffering from terminal cancer.

Psychedelic research

Psychedelics — primarily psilocybin and LSD — have gained renewed interest for their potential therapeutic benefits. Studying these compounds in the US has proven tricky due to their scheduled drug status, but certain researchers have received special permission to investigate the compounds.

Anecdotal reports from users claim a variety of benefits (and risks) associated with taking psilocybin, including reports of depression remission, reduced anxiety, and a sense of wellbeing. Some studies have reported similar benefits when the compounds are paired with psychotherapy.

The 2016 study from Johns Hopkins found that people suffering from potentially deadly cancer experienced 'significant' existential anxiety and depression relief when given psilocybin in conjunction with 'psychologically supported conditions.' The new study from the university reports that psilocybin may be effective for a wider group of people who suffer from major depression, too.

Relief from major depression

Johns Hopkins Medicine notes that this new study was small — it involved 24 people who were given two psilocybin sessions lasting five hours each. Benefits were seen after only four weeks of follow-up, a time period shorter than the weeks or months it may take a traditional antidepressant to work.

All of the participants had a long-term and medically documented struggle with Major Depression Disorder (MDD); their average age was 39 and 16 of the participants were women. All of the participants were tapered off of antidepressants they may have been taking before the study. Some participants were given the psilocybin treatment right away, while others were tasked with waiting 8 weeks first.

According to the study, the psilocybin sessions involved having the participants lie on a sofa where they covered their eyes with a mask and wore headphones playing music. Professionals monitored the participants during these sessions.

The treatment

At the start of the study, the participants had an average GRID-Hamilton Depression Rating Scale score of 23, which is one point lower than the score that indicates severe depression. After receiving the psilocybin treatment, the average score after one and four weeks was down to 8. Nearly half of the participants had their depression go into remission during follow-up and most had a 'substantial decrease' in symptoms.

Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine adjunct assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences Alan Davis, Ph.D., said:

The magnitude of the effect we saw was about four times larger than what clinical trials have shown for traditional antidepressants on the market. Because most other depression treatments take weeks or months to work and may have undesirable effects, this could be a game-changer if these findings hold up in future 'gold-standard' placebo-controlled clinical trials.

Additional research is necessary to explore whether the results hold up in larger clinical trials that include a placebo. As well, research is also needed in the potential risks associated with taking these compounds.