- The psychoactive ingredient in “magic” mushrooms eased depression symptoms in people in a trial.
- The trial used a synthetic version of the drug that is found naturally in “magic” mushrooms.
- Risks of taking “magic” mushrooms include bad trips and numbness, particularly of the face.
People with a serious form of depression who took the psychoactive chemical found in “magic” mushrooms in a trial found their symptoms improved — but experts warn that it can be risky to take “magic” mushrooms at home.
Psilocybin, a chemical found naturally in “magic” mushrooms, is illegal in most countries, including the US. This means people who experiment with the drug, including those who take small doses, can be charged.
The company that ran the trial, COMPASS Pathways, says that it’s studying a synthetic form of the drug to show that it works for treatment-resistant depression and is safe, with the aim of the drug becoming a regulated medical treatment that doctors can legally prescribe.
In the US, around 8.9 million people take drugs for depression, and an estimated 2.8 million people with serious depression haven’t found a treatment that works, despite trying at least two antidepressants at the right dose for an adequate amount of time, according to research.
The latest study, published on November 3 in the New England Journal of Medicine, a leading medical journal, found that people were more likely to report fewer symptoms of depression three weeks after taking a 25mg dose of psilocybin than after a 1mg dose. All participants also received talking therapy.
The trial wasn’t designed to show if the drug work, or if it’s better than existing treatments, but to figure out the dose to test in larger trials — a drug development stepping stone.
It “doesn’t provide anywhere near a final answer on how useful psilocybin might be as a treatment in serious depression, and it isn’t intended to do that,” Kevin McConway, emeritus professor of Applied Statistics at The Open University, said in a statement.
‘Magic’ mushrooms containing psilocybin can cause psychological effects like anxiety
The participants in the trial were supervised by at least two therapists during their trip, and met a therapist three times before taking the drug to prepare for it and twice after to help process what they experienced.
Even with this level of support, some participants had what was described in the study as suicidal ideation or self- injury in the weeks after taking the drug.
Guy Goodwin, study co-author and chief medical officer at COMPASS Pathways, said in a press briefing attended by Insider that the study wasn’t big enough to determine if that was down to chance, or if the drug can trigger suicidal thoughts.
“Magic” mushrooms containing psilocybin can also cause anxiety, panic attacks, fear, or paranoia, according to the Canadian government, though it’s not clear when these effects occur or how long they last.
A ‘bad’ trip is one of the most common negative effects from psilocybin
“Psychological distress is the most common adverse effect reported after use of psilocybin,” Dr. Lawrence Weinstein, chief medical officer of the American Addiction Center, previously told Insider.
“This can range from a ‘bad trip’ to disturbing hallucinations that can last for days,” he said.
The drug can trigger flashbacks of “bad” trips or a condition called hallucinogen-induced persisting perception disorder, which doesn’t have a cure.
“This disorder causes an individual to have flashbacks of their experiences under the influence of a hallucinogen days, months or years after their last use, even if they no longer take the drug. This disorder can lead the individual to suffer severe distress and experience frightening hallucinations,” Weinstein said.
According to the Canadian government, impaired judgment during bad trips from “magic” mushrooms can make people more likely to engage in risky behaviors that may lead to traumatic injuries or death.
Psilocybin can cause physical effects like temporary headaches
Around 77% of people in the study reported side effects from the synthetic form of the drug, like dizziness, nausea, and headaches.
James Rucker, a consultant psychiatrist at King’s College London, UK, and study co-author, said in the press briefing that most of those effects resolved by the time participants went home after a six to eight hour trip.
However, the researchers tested it in a very specific group of people, which means its findings can’t be applied to everyone — for example, anyone with a medical condition that could be worsened by the treatment, like schizophrenia, were excluded, the average age was about 40, and 92% of participants were white.
Like the synthetic version, psilocybin-containing “magic” mushrooms can cause nausea, as well as other physical effects like numbness, particularly of the face, and people can wet themselves, the Canadian government states, though it doesn’t say when they occur and how long it lasts.
Poisonous mushrooms can look like ‘magic’ mushrooms
Caine Barlow, a mycologist in Australia, has previously cautioned that “magic” mushrooms in the wild can look like poisonous species.
Weinstein said that some drugs sold as “magic mushrooms” have turned out to be “store-bought mushrooms laced with another hallucinogen such as PCP or LSD, or a different drug entirely.”
Rucker told Insider that taking psilocybin mushrooms was “much more risky” than taking the drug in the trial, which used psilocybin that had met safety standards.
“If people choose to use psilocybin mushrooms recreationally they should carefully consider the risks,” he said, citing harm reduction websites, like DanceSafe and the Global Drug Survey.