Skip To Content
Cambridge University Science Magazine
Depression is a large problem around the world, and is estimated to cost the UK £7.5 billion per year. Therefore, it is especially urgent to find ways to help the 20% of people suffering from depression who do not find relief in established treatments. Among these are cognitive behavioural therapy and drugs that increase the levels of the signalling molecule serotonin in the brain. Researchers from the University of Cambridge have now performed a first-time pilot study to test psilocybin as a potential treatment for these patients.

Psilocybin is naturally produced by over 200 species of mushrooms. Psilocybin is naturally produced by over 200 species of mushrooms.

Psilocybin is the active hallucinogenic compound in magic mushrooms. It has been shown to influence serotonin signalling, making it a good candidate for the treatment of people with depression, who often have abnormal serotonin levels. However, the hallucinations caused by psilocybin can induce adverse reactions such as anxiety and paranoia. Therefore, the scientists set out to test whether the compound is safe for patients to use by conducting a small-scale feasibility study. They found 12 volunteers suffering from depression that had not been improved by at least two courses of antidepressants or, in 11 of them, by psychotherapy. The volunteers received two doses of psilocybin seven days apart. They were monitored for negative effects during sessions and their status was followed up on the day after the second dose and one, two, three and five weeks later. While they all reported temporary anxiety preceding and during the initial session, all twelve volunteers showed diminished symptoms of depression three weeks later. Seven of them continued to show improvement compared to prior to psilocybin intake three months after the sessions.

This study, published in Lancet Psychiatry, is only a first step towards exploring psilocybin as a treatment for depression, since it had only few participants, who furthermore were fully aware that they were receiving an active compound. There was also no control group receiving a placebo to whom the observed effects could be compared. However, the researchers showed that is in principle safe and feasible to administer psilocybin to patients, and this opens up the way for more in-depth studies, giving hope to people who desperately need it.


Image by Frerk Meyer CC BY-SA 2.0

Written by Janina Ander