One of the primary aims of research into psychedelic-assisted therapies is exploring how compounds such as psilocybin compare to more traditional mental health treatments. Promising studies conducted by investigators at institutions such as the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London indicate that psilocybin can effectively decrease symptoms of treatment-resistant depression.
A new study from researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine suggests that psilocybin-assisted therapy may help more people with depression than previously thought.
Published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, this new study, which included 24 participants, reveals that psilocybin, given alongside supportive psychotherapy, leads to rapid and large antidepressant effects in people with major depressive disorder.
After two experiences with psilocybin, most participants in the study experienced these benefits, with half of them free from depression throughout the following month. The researchers will now be monitoring the patients for a year to see if the antidepressant effects are sustained.
Previous research conducted in 2016 at Johns Hopkins found that psilocybin-assisted therapy can effectively relieve existential anxiety and depression in patients with a terminal cancer diagnosis. This new research suggests that psilocybin can benefit a wider population of patients struggling with major depression, which includes more than 264 million people worldwide.
“The magnitude of the effect we saw was about four times larger than what clinical trials have shown for traditional antidepressants on the market,” said Alan K. Davis Ph.D., the lead author of the study in a statement released by Johns Hopkins. Davis, an adjunct assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, believes there are a number of reasons why this new therapy is so effective.
First, Davis says this treatment combines psilocybin with psychotherapy, whereas clinical trials with antidepressants do not usually combine the medication with therapy. Davis told Lucid News that “it is possible that psilocybin affects a broader range of neurological and psychological areas which account for its efficacy.”
For example, while antidepressants only affect specific neurotransmitters, Davis highlights the unique neurological effects generated by psilocybin-assisted therapy.
According to Davis, psilocybin produces “changes in default mode network function, connecting a variety of brain regions, and downregulating the hyperactivity of the amygdala’s response to negative emotional stimuli.” Psychological effects include mystical experiences and psychological insight which Davis says “may provide for a more rich therapeutic process.”
Davis notes that antidepressants also differ from psilocybin therapy in that they can take weeks or even months to start working and can carry a host of unwanted side effects.
Davis says that the study showed that psilocybin is not without its own side effects, the most common being “mild to moderate headache that typically occurs in the day or night after a psilocybin session.”
Some patients also experience “mild to moderate transient anxiety…during the acute effects of psilocybin,” says Davis, but “neither [the headaches or anxiety] seem to interfere with the psychotherapeutic benefit of the therapy.”
The results of the recent Johns Hopkins study “could be a game changer if these findings hold up in future ‘gold standard’ placebo-controlled clinical trials,” says Davis in a statement.
The entrepreneur, philanthropist, and psychedelic therapy advocate Tim Ferriss supported the study as a key donor. In a statement released by Johns Hopkins, Ferriss said the research was “a critically important proof of concept for the medical approval of psilocybin for treatment of depression, a condition I have personally struggled with for decades.”
Charles F. Reynolds III, a geriatric psychiatrist and the author of an editorial on the new research, told NPR that continuing research on psychedelic therapies “should be funded by mainstream institutions like the National Institutes of Health.” This latest Johns Hopkins study depended on a crowdsourced funding campaign and philanthropic donations. Reynolds says NIH support would help bolster the credibility of the new research and help accelerate the development of psilocybin-assisted therapies for patients who could benefit.
“The quality of the data is such that the investigators might be able to compete successfully for NIH sponsorship,” says Reynolds. “If so, they could take their science to the next level, for example, by proposing and doing a placebo-controlled randomized clinical trial. The NIH funding might be of sufficient magnitude to enable a larger, more rigorous study, including the collection of biomarkers, such as changes in brain activity while under psilocybin.”