Psilocybin, the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms,” continues to show promise as a natural treatment for anxiety and depression. In fact, in a recently-published study, reduced symptoms were recorded weeks after depressed patients supplemented the fungi. Furthermore, before and after brain scans showed significant changes in brain activity associated with depressive symptoms.

The study was conducted by researchers at Imperial College London. Twenty patients with treatment-resistant depression received two doses of psilocybin (10 mg and 25 mg) one week apart. Nineteen had brain imaging done before the treatment and “after” scans were taken after the second treatment. The MRI images were used to compare changes in blood flow and in communication between the brain regions.

Researchers first observed reduced blood flow in the temporal cortex. They also saw decreased blood flow in the amygdala, a small, almond-shaped region which helps to process emotional responses (such as fear, stress, and anger). A significant relationship between decreased blood flow in the region and reduced depressive symptoms was noted.

Participants also filled out questionnaires to report on their mental states. They noted a lightening of their depression after the treatments, as well as the feeling that their brains had somehow changed. “Several of our patients described feeling ‘reset’ after the treatment and often used computer analogies,” explained Robin Carhart-Harris, who led the study.

For example, one said he felt like his brain had been ‘defragged’ like a computer hard drive, and another said he felt ‘rebooted.’ Psilocybin may be giving these individuals the temporary ‘kick start’ they need to break out of their depressive states and these imaging results do tentatively support a ‘reset’ analogy. Similar brain effects to these have been seen with electroconvulsive therapy.

The finding offers an exciting glimpse into brain networks, which disintegrate under the influence of psychedelics but possibly re-integrate afterward. It also supports previous research which suggests that psilocybin is more effective at dissolving the root cause of mental conditions, including anxiety and depression, than pharmaceutical drugs. 

In a recent study, Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris compared the two approaches. He found that participants who supplement with psilocybin often experience a cathartic “release” whereas folks who are prescribed pharmaceutical drugs regularly feel emotionally “blunted.” “If you ask people who are taking SSRIs chronically, they often say ‘I feel blunted’,” Dr. Carhart-Harris told The Independent. “With psilocybin therapy they say the opposite, they talk about an emotional release, a reconnection, and this key emotional centre being more responsive.”

This latest study provides more evidence for psilocybin’s potential as an antidepressant. More research is needed, of course. However, the future is hopeful for individuals who suffer from painful and oftentimes debilitating mental conditions.