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Did the Sixties Curb Potentially the Most Effective Antidepressant Ever?

Love beads, peace signs, frayed bell-bottom jeans, civil rights protests, and the Vietnam war. The sixties and seventies are known for many things, but perhaps one of the lesser-known events was the reclassification of the hallucinogen, psilocybin (commonly found in magic mushrooms), as a Class A drug.

“A good decision”, you may say. And you are right to have the opinion that psychedelic drugs are not a healthy thing for society. But while the Hippie counterculture enjoyed a full-on, if not now illegal, sensory crusade, clinical research into the potential role of these agents as a treatment for depression, anxiety, and substance-misuse disorders essentially ceased.

That is until relatively recently. After years of prohibition, the FDA has awarded breakthrough therapy designation to the Usona Institute for psilocybin for the treatment of Major Depressive Disorder. This is the second breakthrough status to be awarded; in 2018 Compass Pathways also received it for psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression. This designation recognizes drugs that may be significantly more effective than currently available treatments, offering them an accelerated, less sluggish, drug development and approval process.

This comes on the back of several preliminary trials that showed remarkable potential for psilocybin, some in people whose depression had not been effectively treated for over thirty years. In one trial, two doses of psilocybin reduced symptoms of depression in all participants, which persisted for three months in almost 50%. A trial comparing psilocybin to escitalopram is currently underway in the United States and results are expected early 2021.

Brain scans taken during trials suggest psilocybin “resets” brain circuits involved in depression. Indeed, many participants describe the experience in computer-related terms, such as “I feel like my brain has been defragged”. Another felt “rebooted”. Trips were described as a “Journey into my mind, one that allowed me to see a clearer vision of myself and reality, and to confront grief and childhood memories”.

But, before you think about gathering your own supply of psilocybin, remember it remains a Class A drug. Be aware that many mushrooms sold as being “hallucinogenic” are normal mushrooms laced with LSD and wild hallucinogenic mushrooms are renowned for their huge variations in potency. Not to mention they resemble several species of poisonous mushroom. So not only do you risk a bad trip, you could end up being incarcerated for your efforts.

Undoubtedly, we need better treatment for depression, since currently, no single treatment works for everybody. Will psilocybin be it?

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