The psychedelic ingredient that has made magic mushrooms a hit with experimental teenagers and ill-advised bachelor ‘trips’ to Amsterdam may be on the brink of following cannabis out of the illegal wilderness and into pharmacies. The U.S.A’s Food and Drug Administration has approved early stage clinical trials of a drug for ‘treatment-resistant’ depression that contains the active hallucinogenic ingredient psilocybin that occurs naturally in magic mushrooms.
Research sites in the U.K and Europe are also be involved in the second stage of the phase 2 trials which are being conducted by biotech company Compass Pathways and involve 216 patients with treatment-resistant depression. The UK biotech start-up that was only founded in 2015 includes high profile Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel among its backers. The PayPal co-founder was also Facebook’s first major outside investor and has since backed a string of hugely successful start-ups including Airbnb through Clarium Capital, his VC fund.
The development marks the most recent example of research into the potential medical benefits of drugs usually most associated with recreational use and the hippy movement of the 1960s and 70s. Cannabis-based drugs are considered to hold significant potential for the treatment of a variety of diseases and conditions from cancers to chronic pain. The ‘psychedelic renaissance’ has now moved on to biotech researchers exploring the medical application of controlled doses of psilocybin and other hallucinogenics such as LSD, MDMA, ayahuasca and peyote ibogaine.
It is thought that controlled doses of clinically pure examples of the same psychedelic substances found in these drugs, which also often trigger a feeling of euphoria, could perhaps help ‘reset’ the brain circuits of those suffering from serious depression. A 2017 study carried out by a team at Imperial College London, though conducted on a very limited clinical sample of 20 individuals, saw an easing of their depression symptoms in the weeks after they took psilocybin. The results were published in the Scientific Reports journal.
Other studies have demonstrated comparable initial findings. In 2016, research involving academics from both the John Hopkins and New York universities, also noted that a dose of psilocybin led to a reduction in the anxiety being experienced by cancer patients for up to 8 months. The research also involved a second test group given a placebo.
The potential benefits of psilocybin and other hallucinogenics are thought to result from the theory that they act as a catalyst to communication between parts of the brain that otherwise rarely connect to each other.
Researchers are, however, quick to warn that the start of early stage clinical trials into the possible medical benefits of hallucinogenic drugs that are otherwise illegal should not be taken as a green light that they are generally safe to consume. Trials involve specific doses of clinical grade purity substances within a controlled environment.
Magic mushrooms are not life threatening in themselves unless a large or particularly strong quantity were to be consumed. However, within an uncontrolled environment and dosage, side effects can include vomiting, diarrhoea, loss of muscle control, psychosis, and seizures. Consuming too much in the wrong surroundings can also result in an unpleasant or traumatic ‘trip’ that users can experience hallucination ‘flashbacks’ of up to years later.