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Psilocybin: From Counterculture Menace to Potential Treatment for Depression

Psilocybin has gained recent media attention for its potential as a therapeutic in the treatment of Major Depressive Disorder. Just this month, a Canadian pharmaceuticals company, Cybin, received approval to conduct Phase II of its psilocybin formulation, named CYB001.

What is Psilocybin?

Psilocybin is a compound found in some 200 species of fungi. Upon ingestion, the body converts psilocybin to psilocin, a potent psychoactive and hallucinogenic compound.

Archaeological evidence suggests the use of so-called “magic mushrooms” in a medicinal and spiritual context

by indigenous tribes of North America and North Africa for millennia. However, the compound itself was not isolated and identified until 1958 by Dr. Albert Hoffman. Interestingly, it was also Dr. Hoffman who first isolated lysergic acid diethylamide or LSD.

Why Are Magic Mushrooms Illegal?

Psilocybin mushrooms gained notoriety in the 1960s when Timothy Leary, a renowned Harvard psychologist, began work on the Harvard Psilocybin Project. Leary’s research practices, which admittedly involved participating in the use of the drug along with his research subjects, were deemed unorthodox and unethical by his colleagues. He and his research partner, Richard Alpert, were fired from Harvard and ostracized within the academic community.

Leary continued to promote the use of psychedelic drugs and became a central figure in the counterculture movement of the 60s and 70s. At one point, Richard Nixon dubbed him “the most dangerous man in America” for encouraging young people to experiment with drugs.

Soon after, Nixon declared drug abuse to be “Public Enemy Number One.” He signed the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act in 1970, which eventually led to the classification of psilocybin as an illicit, Schedule I substance-that is a substance with no medicinal value and a high potential for misuse.

Psilocybin as a Therapeutic

The 21st century has seen a renewed interest in the medicinal potential of psilocybin. In 2018, Hopkins researchers recommended reclassification of psilocybin from a Schedule I substance to a Schedule IV drug.

Schedule IV drugs are deemed to have medicinal benefits and a significantly lower risk of abuse. Such a reclassification would facilitate research already being conducted in its use as a treatment in mood disorders.

A review of the current literature suggests that psilocybin may be effective in the treatment of anxiety and depression associated with cancer-related psychiatric distress for up to six months following a single administration.

The same review found that preliminary results suggest a good reason to expand research on the use of psilocybin for treating Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and addiction.

A 2017 study found promising results in the treatment of a small group of individuals with treatment-resistant Major Depressive Disorder. The treatment was well-tolerated, with positive outcomes maintained from 3-6 months in conjunction with psychotherapy.

A study from April 2021 directly compared the use of psilocybin to an established antidepressant, escitalopram. The small study found no significant difference in the efficacy of escitalopram versus psilocybin in the treatment of depressive symptoms; furthermore, secondary outcomes tended to favor psilocybin.

What Can We Expect?

Studies for the use of psilocybin as a treatment for anxiety, depression, addiction, and other mental health disorders are ongoing. Current studies remain small and limited but are nonetheless promising. It will be interesting to see how clinical trials progress.

While the use of psilocybin as a treatment for depression may be far in the future, there are other effective options currently available. If you are experiencing symptoms of a mental health disorder, we encourage you to contact your licensed healthcare provider.

The Crane Center specializes in all types of mental health disorders. We are currently open and accepting new patients. Call us to schedule your consultation today.