Psilocybin therapy alters brain wiring in depressed people, study finds

Psilocybin therapy alters brain wiring in depressed people, study finds

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New research continues to find evidence that psilocybin – the active ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms – can uniquely help people with depression. The study found that people undergoing psilocybin-assisted therapy showed noticeable changes in brain patterns associated with depression, including when compared to a control group. People have also reported a reduction in their symptoms of depression alongside these brain changes.

Some researchers have been studying the potential mental health benefits of psychedelics like psilocybin since the 1970s. But it’s only in recent years that health authorities and governments have been more permissive of this research, after decades of tough regulations.

Large-scale research in this area is still relatively new, but health regulators have signaled their willingness to review these and similar drugs for formal approval. In 2019, a nasal spray formulation of ketamine, sometimes a club drug, was approved by the Food and Drug Administration. That same year, the FDA granted a Breakthrough Therapy designation to a non-profit company attempting to develop psilocybin as a treatment for depression, which aims to expedite the review process. States and cities have also begun to decriminalize psilocybin in general or for medicinal purposes.

Results from clinical and animal trials of psilocybin-assisted therapy have shown promise for depression and other terms, including alcohol use disorder. But there’s still a lot we don’t understand about how these types of drugs help people with these conditions. This new research published Monday in Nature Medicine, seeks to add insight.

The results come from two previously conducted small-scale trials of psilocybin. In one, patients with treatment-resistant depression received treatment knowingly; in the other, patients with less severe depression were randomized to receive psilocybin or an active placebo (an SSRI antidepressant). All of these patients had their brains scanned before and after treatment, which included psychotherapy sessions.

Some brain regions seem to be overly wired and rigid in people with depression, including those associated with cognition and attention. In this current study, researchers found that people on psilocybin experienced reduced brain connectivity along these same regions, unlike those on SSRIs. The subjects also seemed to show increased connectivity between brain areas that aren’t as well-connected as in people who aren’t depressed. The net result of these changes was that patients’ brains became more organized after taking psilocybin, the authors say.

Importantly, these brain changes were also associated with improved symptoms, meaning people whose brain scans showed these changes to a greater degree also tended to experience more relief from their depression. And the changes seemed to last at least until three weeks after the second dose, at the end of the study.

“In previous studies, we observed a similar effect in the brain when people were scanned while taking a psychedelic, but here we see it weeks after treatment for depression, suggesting a delay in ‘acute action of the drug,’ the senior said. study author Robin Carhart-Harris, director of the Neuroscape Psychedelics Division at the University of California, in a statement.

The results appear to reaffirm that psychedelics like psilocybin may provide an alternative to conventional treatments for depression, which unfortunately do not work for many patients (up to a third of patients may be treatment resistant). But the authors note that more research needs to be done on how long these changes — and their associated benefits — can generally last in people, as some people seem to experience a relapse in symptoms after a while. They also warn that these drugs should not be used without the supervision of mental health providers.

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