Could so-called 'magic mushrooms' be a magic bullet for depression?

Scientists may be on the brink of a groundbreaking treatment for depression using psilocybin.


Could so-called magic mushrooms be a magic bullet for depression?

A psychedelic compound found in mushrooms is opening pathways inside the brain, and scientists — including many in the Baltimore area — may be on the brink of a groundbreaking treatment.

Em Hanchek described his experience with psilocybin — the pharmaceutical version of the psychedelic substance magic mushrooms.

"I did experience some very interesting and unusual imagery, very dreamlike. Some of it more classic psychedelic, more shapes and colors and shifting sensations," Hanchek said.

It's a potentially ground-breaking medication for people with treatment-resistant depression.

"My life is in a different place now," Hanchek said.

Hanchek is one of 24 participants in a recent study at the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research.

"For some people who have not found relief from traditional therapies that are out there, this could be lifesaving," said Dr. Natalie Gukasyan, the center's medical director. "The effects of the medication are usually evident pretty quickly, much more quickly than antidepressants."

Hopkins study participants got two psilocybin pills — each dose was two weeks apart. One month later, 71% of participants had a "clinically significant" response, which means an improvement in their depression symptoms of 50% or more, and 54% of participants were in "complete remission."

The next phase of the study evaluates those same participants a year later. Results have yet to be published, but Gukasyan said they are impressive.

"Essentially, it shows that the results we saw at one month, surprisingly, were persistent through a one-year period, which is pretty remarkable," Gukasyan said.

Here's how the treatment works: First, participants are prepared for the experience over several counseling sessions, and then on treatment day, they're led into this comfortable room.

"People lie back on the couch. They have eye shades on, they have headphones on with a preset recording of music and they're encouraged to go inward and have the experience," Gukasyan said.

Two therapists are with them to offer support during the entire hallucinogenic experience, which lasts four to six hours.

"The psilocybin allows geographically distant and functionally distant areas of the brain to talk to one another when they normally wouldn't," Gukasyan said.

Hopkins isn't the only Maryland medical facility studying psilocybin. Sheppard Pratt researchers are conducting a study that entails one dose. Dr. Scott Aaronson calls his results stunning.

"We had somebody who spent a whole hour giggling, and we also had somebody who spent a whole hour crying," Aaronson said. "Ultimately, all my studies were single-dose psilocybin, and leading often to transformative results. There are a couple people who we've followed now for 12 weeks who remain in remission."

To explain what's happening, Aaronson showed an image that illustrated brain activity after a placebo and after psilocybin. Additional lines show new connections in the brain.

"What we're actually doing here is increasing the neural activity and it enables people to engage in their inner life in a different way than anything else has," Aaronson said.

Aaronson said psilocybin seems to unlock a door that allows psychotherapy to be more effective.

"This is a whole different way to look at depression," Aaronson said.

Gukasyan said, for some, it's a whole different way of looking at their existence. She's intrigued by what some participants describe as a mystical experience.

"Feeling one with nature and with the universe, sort of a loss of boundary between self and other, things like that," Gukasyan said.

There are many scientists who are still figuring out about psilocybin. It'll be another five or six years until it's available as a treatment and larger studies still need to be done. For Hanchek, improvement didn't happen right away. But over time, it allowed psychotherapy to have a much greater effect.

"Going from someone who was previously holding himself back from engaging in life, and coming out of it and being able to work towards someone who is more open to more experience and is kinder to myself — and that translates to being kinder and more open to others," Hanchek said.

Researchers said this is just the beginning of psilocybin research into all kinds of psychological issues, including anxiety, anorexia and even autism.

Sheppard Pratt is in the process of constructing an entire facility for psychedelic research, in conjunction with the mental health care company Compass Pathways.

Both Sheppard Pratt and Johns Hopkins are actively looking for study participants. Click the links for more information.