How a strange little mushroom fills the deep well of depression

An estimated 1 in 5 Americans is currently suffering from symptoms of depression. And studies indicate between 30 percent and 50 percent will have trouble finding a medication that fully works for them.

Traditional antidepressants like SSRIs are not only sometimes ineffective but can actually be dangerous for your health. One study found people who take SSRIs are at a 33 percent higher chance of premature death than people who don’t take the drugs. SSRI users also have a 14 percent elevated risk of cardiovascular problems like heart attacks or strokes.

These downsides have prompted researchers to seek alternatives that are safer and more effective than traditional antidepressants. One of these alternatives is psilocybin, a psychedelic compound derived from so-called “magic mushrooms.”

Several studies have indicated it can significantly reduce depression symptoms and even put some patients into remission. In fact, 60 percent to 70 percent of people with clinical depression and anxiety have experienced long-term remission after just one treatment.

But how does it do its “magic?”

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Psilocybin: a rope in a deep well of depression

To find out, U.S. and U.K. researchers analyzed fMRI brain scans from participants in two psilocybin trials.

In the first, the patients had treatment-resistant depression and were aware they were taking psilocybin. The participants in the second group weren’t as severely depressed and did not know whether they were receiving psilocybin or escitalopram, an SSRI antidepressant. In addition, all participants underwent psychotherapy.

fMRI scans examined by the researchers done before and after treatment showed that psilocybin reduced connections within areas of the brain which were strongly associated with depression and fixed-patterned thinking.

On the brain’s “landscape” those areas are visible as deep wells that make it difficult for depressed people to switch between different thoughts and perspectives. That’s why their thinking gets “stuck” and can become obsessive.

Therapy with psilocybin evens out those deep wells, “flattening” the brain’s landscape and loosening the rigidity of depressed thinking. This allows the depressed to experience new thoughts, insights and perspectives — all of which contribute to healthier flexibility and diversity in their thought patterns. Psilocybin also increased connections to other regions of the brain that weren’t well-integrated before treatment.

In addition, participants who took psilocybin demonstrated better cognitive functioning and were less likely to avoid emotions.

The good news is the brain changes in the psilocybin group lasted until the study ended three weeks after their second dose — but more research is needed…

“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,” says Robin Carhart-Harris, PhD, who directs the Neuroscape Psychedelics Division at UCSF and is the senior author of the study.

However, the study does point to a potential mechanism that may explain how psilocybin helps to relieve depression and, potentially, other psychiatric conditions.

“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,” says Dr. David Nutt, head of the Imperial Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London. “This supports our initial predictions and confirms psilocybin could be a real alternative approach to depression treatments.”

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Legal ways to rewire your brain

While these findings are encouraging, the researchers warn that patients with depression should not attempt to self-medicate with psilocybin. The participants in the study received a regulated, laboratory-formulated dose of psilocybin and received extensive psychological support before, during and after dosing. And while recreational psilocybin use has been decriminalized in some U.S. cities and states, it’s still against federal law.

There are ways of “rewiring” your brain to help relieve depression that don’t involve antidepressants or psychedelics. For instance, doing things that improve your brain’s neuroplasticity can help get rid of the negative thought patterns associated with depression. Positive self-talk can help shush the negative thoughts.

Some activities that promote neuroplasticity include playing video games, learning a new language, engaging in creative pursuits like playing a musical instrument or making art, traveling and exercising regularly.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) also has been associated with better brain neuroplasticity. The theory behind CBT is that our thoughts and actions directly influence the way we feel. By using CBT to alter distorted thinking and behaviors that aren’t productive to our needs, we can change our emotions, which leads to a better, healthier life.

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Psilocybin Rewires the Brain for People with Depression — University of California San Francisco

Increased global integration in the brain after psilocybin therapy for depression — Nature Medicine

Anxiety and Depression: Household Pulse Survey — Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Psilocybin Fast Facts — National Drug Intelligence Center

Where Magic Mushrooms Are Decriminalized in the U.S. As Detroit Set to Vote — Newsweek

6 Ways to Rewire Your Brain — Healthline

4 Steps to Change Your Brain, Change Your Mental Disorder — Discovery Mood & Anxiety Program

Carolyn Gretton

By Carolyn Gretton

Carolyn Gretton is a freelance writer based in New Haven, CT who specializes in all aspects of health and wellness and is passionate about discovering the latest health breakthroughs and sharing them with others. She has worked with a wide range of companies in the alternative health space and has written for online and print publications like Dow Jones Newswires and the Philadelphia Inquirer.