Could a compound in mushrooms help treat depression? It appears so, but not the type of mushrooms you find in the produce section. In a new study, psilocybin – the natural chemical found in “magic” mushrooms – helped lower symptoms of depression in participants, and it worked better than conventional medication. The mushroom compound works by strengthening connections between different areas in the brain, researchers from UC San Francisco and Imperial College London found.

The study, published on April 11th in Nature Medicine, analyzed how psilocybin impacts the brains of people suffering from depression. Nearly 60 participants took psilocybin in two separate trials, three weeks apart, to see how it worked in contrast to a placebo and in also how it did versus conventional antidepressants. In both cases, the psilocybin worked to significantly alleviate depression symptoms – and did so in ways conventional antidepressants do not, the authors said. The study suggests that psilocybin may be able to be used as an effective treatment for depression when prescribed by medical professionals.

“For the first time we find that psilocybin works differently from conventional antidepressants – making the brain more flexible and fluid, and less entrenched in the negative thinking patterns associated with depression,” stated David Nutt, DM, and head of the Imperial Centre for Psychedelic Research. “This supports our initial predictions and confirms psilocybin could be a real alternative approach to depression treatments.”

Last year, an estimated 21 million Americans suffered at least one episode of clinical depression or about 1 in 8 Americans. Globally it is estimated that 5 percent of adults suffer from depression, and researchers continue to test treatments to manage the mental illness. The research team turned to “magic” mushrooms because psilocybin and other serotonergic psychedelics work on brain receptors called 5-HT2A, creating more connectivity and flexibility in the brains of those with depression.

"In both trials, the antidepressant response to psilocybin was rapid, sustained, and correlated with decreases in fMRI brain network modularity, implying that psilocybin’s antidepressant action may depend on a global increase in brain network integration," the study authors wrote. Using MRI to map brain activity, the researchers found that "5-HT2A receptor-rich higher-order functional networks became more functionally interconnected and flexible after a psilocybin treatment. The antidepressant response to [the anti-depression drug] escitalopram was milder and no changes in brain network organization were observed," the researchers added.

Psilocybin and Depression

During the study, researchers divided the participants into two groups. The first had treatment-resistant depression and knowingly took psilocybin. The second trial was a double-blind, randomized trial that gave some of the participants psilocybin and the others received escitalopram – a common selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressant. The researchers then looked at brain activity through MRI scans before, during, and after the study period.

The scans showed the psilocybin treatment lowered connections within areas of the brain that correlate with depression while increasing connections between areas of the brain known to help improve brain functioning and lower depression symptoms. The participants who took the psilocybin became less emotionally avoidant and their cognitive function improved. The effects lasted three weeks after the second psilocybin dose. Most notably, no similar changes were recorded in the subjects who received escitalopram instead.

“We don’t yet know how long the changes in brain activity seen with psilocybin therapy last, and we need to do more research to understand this, Ralph Metzner Distinguished Professor of Neurology, Psychiatry, and Behavioral Sciences and a member of the UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences Robin Carhart-Harris said. “We do know that some people relapse, and it may be that after a while their brains revert to the rigid patterns of activity we see in depression.”

The study’s authors warn that although the results are promising, people should not begin self-medicating with psilocybin, a substance that is still illegal in most of the United States. The team conducted the research under controlled, clinical conditions, and patients received psychotherapy throughout the duration of the study.

For decades, researchers have believed that psilocybin and similar hallucinogens could potentially combat depression as well as several other mental illnesses. During this study, the research team worked to build on the immense foundation of hypotheses regarding the brain-altering chemical. The study also considered how depression is typically associated with hyperconnectivity or unincorporated regions of the brain.

“In previous studies, we had seen a similar effect in the brain when people were scanned whilst on a psychedelic, but here we’re seeing it weeks after treatment for depression, which suggests a carry-over of the acute drug action,” Carhart-Harris said.

The study also noted that the changes observed in the participant’s brain functioning were consistent with previous insight into the acute action of psychedelics. Despite positive results, the researchers stated that larger-scale trials will be needed to establish the generalizability of psilocybin's positive effects.

Plant-Based Diets Can Improve Mental Health

Until further research proves psilocybin's effects on depression, there are several legal, at-home solutions to help minimize common symptoms of depression. Recently, a team of Harvard Health researchers released a report that asserted that there is an irrefutable connection between diet and mental health.

“A dietary pattern characterized by a high intake of fruit, vegetables, whole grain, fish, olive oil, low-fat dairy and antioxidants and low intakes of animal foods was apparently associated with a decreased risk of depression," according to the Harvard report. "A dietary pattern characterized by a high consumption of red and/or processed meat, refined grains, sweets, high-fat dairy products, butter, potatoes and high-fat gravy, and low intakes of fruits and vegetables is associated with an increased risk of depression.”

Before we turn to "magic" mushrooms, another study found that other kinds of legal mushrooms can help lower the risk of depression. A study from Penn State University collected data from 24,000 American adults to conclude that people who consumed more fungi showed lower levels of depression. The report suggests that mushrooms' high levels of ergothioneine, could lower the risk of oxidative stress.

For more research and findings in the health world, check out The Beet's Health & Nutrition articles

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