September 14, 2018

Psilocybin as a therapeutic treatment

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Mushrooms get their magic back 

Found in ‘magic mushrooms’, psilocybin, has been used for spiritual or religious purposes in different cultures for centuries. However, popular use of psychedelics for recreational use in the 1960s caused a moral panic that led to its criminalisation.1

Thanks to new research on the potential for psilocybin to treat conditions like depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, drug dependencies, and to help people facing a life-threatening disease, there’s a new groundswell of interest being hailed as a ‘psychedelic renaissance’.

The research is ongoing, but trials show psilocybin has the potential to break a person’s habitual thought patterns. This can help produce a change in their outlook – what some people are referring to as ‘resetting’ the brain.

What is psilocybin?

Psilocybin is the active chemical found in ‘magic mushrooms’. When it’s used in a therapeutic setting, the drug is prepared as a high-quality, controlled dose. It’s commonly classified as a psychedelic drug.2

‘Psychedelic’ describes drugs that can change an individual’s perception of the world, mood and thoughts.

Debate surrounding the classification of psilocybin means it’s described both as an entheogen (a drug that inspires spiritual experiences) and an empathogen (a drug that encourages feelings of empathy and connectedness).

Effects on the brain

How psilocybin and other psychedelics affect the brain is being researched. Neuroscientists have discovered that, although their chemical structures are different, a common feature of psychedelic drugs is to activate the serotonin receptors in the brain.3

Brain-imaging technology shows that psychedelic drugs also quieten the brain’s established, default settings that regulate things like self-talk, self-reflection and memory.5

If psilocybin causes the brain to no longer process information in its routine way, this could explain the experiences people have on psychedelic drugs – and how it helps change ingrained patterns of thought.6

Stronger connection to others 

Reports from people in psilocybin studies show the experience helps address the underlying issues affecting their mental health.

Exactly how psychedelic drugs change people’s perceptions and feelings of connectedness is still being researched. A person’s increased feelings of connectedness to others, to the world, and to themselves might address an underlying disconnection that is present in many mental health disorders.7

Participants in studies on the therapeutic use of psychedelic drugs express increased appreciation and connection with the world beyond themselves that can sometimes last for months.8

Research into how psychedelics like psilocybin can be used suggests their effectiveness is linked to how they can bring about a mystical experience – one that creates feelings of grand connectedness or unity.9

Positive findings from research

Today the therapeutic benefits of psilocybin are picking up where previous studies left off decades ago.

A study on psilocybin to quit smoking found 60% of people had stopped smoking a year after their psilocybin treatment. Also, 86% of them rated their experience as one of the five most meaningful experiences in their life.10

A trial looking at using psilocybin to reduce alcohol dependence also found many people stopped drinking after psilocybin treatment. These results lasted around nine months for some people.11

Psilocybin as a treatment for depression has produced promising results, with one study reporting rapid improvements for up to six months in some participants.12

To date there has only been one small study looking at psilocybin as a treatment for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). The study found all nine participants had some level of reduction in their OCD symptoms; however, the length of its effectiveness varied a lot between participants.13

The effects of psilocybin on people with life-threatening cancer is one of the more interesting studies, with 80% of participants saying their wellbeing and life satisfaction had increased as a result.14

The researchers found there was a link between the significance of a mystical type of experience and the person’s outcomes.15

Lots more we need to know

The long-term benefits for people, along with the long-term effects of psilocybin on the brain, are still being researched. 

While the research to date has shown positive results, many of the studies have been small (few participants). 

Larger studies are currently underway which could provide conclusive evidence of psilocybin as a treatment drug dependency and treatment-resistant depression. 

  1. Wark, C., & Galliher, J. F. (2010). Historical analysis: Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert (Ram Dass) and the changing definition of psilocybin. The International Journal of Drug Policy, 21234-239.
  2. ADF 2018. Psilocybin. Alcohol and Drug Foundation: Drug Facts.
  3. Carhart-Harris, R. L., Roseman, L., Bolstridge, M., Pannekoek, J. N., Wall, M. B., Kaelen, M., & ... McGonigle, J. (n.d). Psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression: fMRI-measured brain mechanisms. Scientific Reports, 7.
  4. Nutt, David. 2012. Drugs without the hot air: minimising the harms of legal and illegal drugs. Cambridge: UIT.
  5. Ibid
  6. Ibid
  7. Gaynes, B. (2009). Identifying Difficult-to-Treat Depression: Differential Diagnosis, Subtypes, and Comorbidities. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, (SUPP/6). 10.
  8. Carhart-Harris, R. L., Erritzoe, D., Haijen, E., Kaelen, M., & Watts, R. 2017. Psychedelics and connectedness. Psychopharmacology, 235(2), 547-550.
  9. Ibid
  10. Johnson, MW, Garcia-Romeu, A, & Griffiths, RR 2017, 'Long-term follow-up of psilocybin-facilitated smoking cessation', The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, vol. 43, no. 1, pp. 55-60.
  11. Bogenschutz, M., Bogenschutz, M. P., Forcehimes, A. A., Pommy, J. A., Wilcox, C. E., Strassman, R. J., & Barbosa, P. R. (n.d). Psilocybin-assisted treatment for alcohol dependence: A proof-of-concept study. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 29(3), 289-299.
  12. Carhart-Harris, R. L., Bolstridge, M., Day, C. J., Rucker, J., Watts, R., Erritzoe, D. E., & ... Nutt, D. J. (2018). Psilocybin with psychological support for treatment-resistant depression: six-month follow-up. Psychopharmacology, 235(2), 399-408.
  13. Moreno, F.A., Wiegand, C.B., Keolani Taitano, E., Delgado, P.L. 2005. Safety, tolerability, and efficacy of psilocybin in 9 patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 67(11), 1735-1740.
  14. Griffiths, R. R., Johnson, M. W., Umbricht, A., Richards, W. A., Richards, B. D., Cosimano, M. P., & ... Carducci, M. A. (n.d). Psilocybin produces substantial and sustained decreases in depression and anxiety in patients with life-threatening cancer: A randomized double-blind trial. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 30(12), 1181-1197.
  15. Ibid
  16. Ibid

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