Psilocybin, the active compound in magic mushrooms, may be at least as effective as a leading antidepressant medication in a therapeutic setting.
This is the finding of a study carried out by researchers at the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London.
In the most rigorous trial to date assessing the therapeutic potential of a ‘psychedelic’ compound, researchers compared two sessions of psilocybin therapy with a six-week course of a leading antidepressant (a selective serotonin uptake inhibitor called escitalopram) in 59 people with moderate-to-severe depression.
The results, published today in the New England Journal of Medicine, show that while depression scores were reduced in both groups, the reductions occurred more quickly in the psilocybin group and were greater in magnitude.
However, the researchers caution that the main comparison between psilocybin and the antidepressant was not statistically significant. They add that larger trials with more patients over a longer period are needed to show if psilocybin can perform as well as, or more effectively than an established antidepressant.
The findings, in the first-of-a-kind head-to-head comparison of psilocybin therapy and the antidepressant escitalopram, suggests the psychoactive ingredient has promise as a potential mental health treatment, the researchers said.
“Remission rates were twice as high in the psilocybin group than the escitalopram group,” Robin Carhart-Harris, who designed and led the study as head of the centre for psychedelic research at Imperial College London, told a briefing.
“One of the most important aspects of this work is that people can clearly see the promise of properly delivered psilocybin therapy by viewing it compared with a more familiar, established treatment,” he said. “Psilocybin performed very favourably in this head-to-head.”
Depression is one of the leading causes of ill health worldwide, and existing treatments are often ineffective or have adverse side effects that lead patients to stop taking them.