In a new study, researchers are exploring whether psychedelics or related compounds, could be a new treatment option for people with depression.
The research was conducted by a team at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine.
Major depression is one of the most common mental health issues in the United States, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, affecting an estimated 17.3 million adults.
Treatment usually involves counseling/therapy, medication or a combination of both. However, these options take time to produce meaningful results and have high failure rates.
Patients with depression need to receive antidepressants for weeks or even months to start to see the first therapeutic effects. Not only that—within that period of time, the risk of suicide goes up.
Researchers in the U.S. and Europe have shown that a single dose of psilocybin, the psychoactive compound in so-called “magic mushrooms,” has fast-acting antidepressant effects—generally within hours.
These effects also appear to last much longer than traditional antidepressants.
One previous study found that 80% of people diagnosed with terminal cancer and depression who received a single dose of psilocybin continued to show improvements in their mood after six months.
But it took until the year 2000 for the Food and Drug Administration to grant permission for psilocybin research to resume, and it was only recently that positive results from these studies have made headlines.
Still, psychedelics are considered controlled substances that have no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse and are classified as Schedule I drugs.
In the study, the team aimed to uncover how psychedelic compounds produce antidepressant effects.
One possible mechanism behind psychedelics’ observed antidepressant activity involves changes to the way the brain is wired—a process involving the creation of new synapses.
Synapses are the most basic structures that neurons use to communicate with each other.
Previous research has shown that people experiencing depression often have fewer synaptic connections, especially in areas of the brain responsible for regulating mood and cognition, such as the frontal cortex.
The team found that when mice are given a single dose of a psychedelic compound, it not only reduces behaviors associated with depression but also increases the number of synapses in their frontal cortexes.
They hope that by identifying the long-lasting changes that psychedelics trigger in the brain, they might be able to develop purely clinical versions of these drugs.
The ultimate goal is to find drugs that induce antidepressant effects without inducing psychosis-like effects.
One author of the study is Javier González-Maeso, Ph.D.
The study was presented at the inaugural meeting of the International Society for Research on Psychedelics.
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