According to researchers from the world’s first psychedelic research center, Centre for Psychedelic Research at London’s Imperial College, psilocybin—or “magic mushrooms”—could replace prescribed antidepressants within five years. The assertion follows similar research from John Hopkins University, which suggests victims of emotional trauma may experience more long-term relief when using natural psilocybin fungi instead of chemical drugs.
Dr. Robin Earhart-Harris, head of the research center, is leading one of the first trials to determine how therapy involving the mushrooms—which are currently illegal in the UK—compares to leading antidepressants. While he won’t pre-judge the study, he did share that the trials have resulted in a cathartic emotional “release.” He compared this to the dulled, “blunted” effect of prescribed antidepressants. It is the first of many studies planned at London’s Imperial College.
For the trial, 60 participants with moderate to severe depression will be given psilocybin treatment. They will be accompanied by a therapy session with a clinical psychologist. Participants will be randomly allocated to receive either the fungi or the placebo. Neither the researchers nor the participants will know who is in each group.
The effects of taking psilocybin will be compared with the antidepressant escitalopram. The drug is a type of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). It accounts for the largest percent of the antidepressant market.
If you ask people who are taking SSRIs chronically, they often say, ‘I feel blunted’,” Dr. Carhart-Harris told the Independent. He meant both negative and positive emotions were suppressed. “With psilocybin therapy they say the opposite, they talk about an emotional release, a reconnection, and this key emotional center being more responsive.
An MRI is used to study the psychedelics’ effects on the brain. Early indications suggest that the list of side-effects is “twice as long” for escitalopram as it is for psilocybin therapy. The fungi also seem to act much faster than antidepressants which can take months to kick in.
But the therapy isn’t for everyone, of course. Dr. Earhart-Harris said that people with psychosis and regulators will need evidence of its effectiveness and safety from clinical trials. Nearly everyone else is a potential candidate, however. In fact, the 2018 Global Drug Survey found that magic mushrooms are the safest recreational drug to take.
I would imagine if you had some bookmakers doing the odds, there would be strong odds on that [psychedelic therapy] will be licensed sometime in the next five to 10 years – maybe sooner,” said Dr. Carhart-Harris.
The implications of that are actually frightening to me, thinking of the power and influence of big pharma,” he added. “What are they going to do with that if there’s this big public demand for the ‘mushroom therapy’, and not the Prozac?
The head researcher has a point—the market for antidepressants is a lucrative one. In one decade alone, the demand for antidepressants in England actually doubled. Between 2005 and 2015, the use of antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications soared in the United States, according to the Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. As a result, the antidepressant drugs market is expected to reach a whopping $15.98 billion by 2023, according to Allied Market Research. If research continues to prove the safety and effectiveness of psilocybin therapy, more cities may follow the lead of Denver, Colorado, a move that would undoubtedly upset Big Pharma.
According to Dr. James Rucker, another researcher exploring the benefits of psychedelics at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College London, there is a “possibility” the fungi could be prescribed over antidepressants within five years. He added, “But only if everything goes to plan, and you know what they say about best-laid plans.”
Like all treatments, they will suit some people but not others. The trick, as ever, is trying to work that out before administration. But that trick has proven to be remarkably difficult to pull off, particularly in psychiatry.