Monday, April 12, 2010

Psilocybin for depression: are shrooms good for the brain?

What to do with the all-too-common treatment-resistant depression patient? Get them to exercise? Undergo electroconvulsive shock therapy? Transcranial magnetic stimulation? Deep brain stimulation?

How about getting them to do shrooms?

A popular article in yesterday’s New York Times discussed a renewed scientific interest in using psychedelic drugs to treat psychological disorders such as drug addiction, OCD, and depression. The article profiles the case of Clark Martin, a retired clinical psychologist who tried many traditional therapies for his depression linked to kidney cancer. Martin participated in a study at John Hopkins medical school where he tried psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient in certain mushrooms. He claims that this single experience was more effective in treating his depression than anything else he tried.

It could be argued that this healing was due to an extraneous factor such as Martin’s expectations about psilocybin. However, psilocybin (after being converted in the body to psilocin) is known to mimic the effects of serotonin in the brain, acting as an agonist at the 5-HT2A receptor. This is the same receptor that is targeted by conventional SSRI antidepressants. Psilocybin and antidepressants thus have some overlap in their mechanisms of action.

Controlled experiments on the effects of psychedelic drugs on mental health are well underway, and interesting findings could emerge. Roland Griffiths, a behavioural biology professor at John Hopkins, has already reported effects of psilocybin that are indistinguishable from those of Ritalin:

“In one of Dr. Griffiths’s first studies, involving 36 people with no serious physical or emotional problems, he and colleagues found that psilocybin could induce what the experimental subjects described as a profound spiritual experience with lasting positive effects for most of them. None had had any previous experience with hallucinogens, and none were even sure what drug was being administered.

To make the experiment double-blind, neither the subjects nor the two experts monitoring them knew whether the subjects were receiving a placebo, psilocybin or another drug like Ritalin, nicotine, caffeine or an amphetamine. Although veterans of the ’60s psychedelic culture may have a hard time believing it, Dr. Griffiths said that even the monitors sometimes could not tell from the reactions whether the person had taken psilocybin or Ritalin.”

Substances that are labelled as dangerous drugs of abuse could soon receive more positive attention, such as that found in yesterday’s NY Times, if the current scientific interest develops and expands. New neuroscientific techniques may help us realize that those hippies in the ‘60s as well as those Eastern cultures who have been experimenting with psychedelic drugs and spirituality for thousands of years may have actually been on to something.

The bad name given to hallucinogens has been a product of both baseless preaching and legitimate concerns over adverse effects. Research on the effects of psychedelic drugs on the brain can bring about a more objective picture of their use and misuse, leading to better legal regulations and healthcare applications.

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