Psychedelic healing: could magic mushrooms help reboot the brain?

At any given moment, more than 3 per cent of the UK population are thought to be suffering from depression. For some people, like Kirk Rutter, symptoms persist despite treatment. Could psilocybin – the psychedelic drug found in magic mushrooms – help to put an end to depression by ‘rebooting’ the brain?

26th February 2018
Kirk Rutter’s severe depression improved after he took psilocybin © Fran Monks

Kirk Rutter’s severe depression improved after he took psilocybin © Fran Monks

Kirk never got over the death of his mother. When she passed away in 2011 after a long illness, the 47-year-old IT specialist kept himself busy by organising her funeral and dealing with the other administrative tasks that come with a death in the family. But while his father and brother managed to pick themselves up and move on, he struggled to come to terms with the loss.

“After the funeral was over there was nothing left to organise or create, and I found myself in a kind of void that just persisted until I was overwhelmed,” he says. “After six months I was still talking about her death, and I wondered whether I should be over it by now. Should I have moved on? Should I be better? But I didn’t really feel that way – I kept feeling worse and worse until I was just chronically sad all the time.”

Eventually, Kirk spiralled into a deep depression that reached into all areas of his life. He signed up for counselling and visited a therapist every week for a year. It didn’t work. His GP prescribed a number of different antidepressants, but they didn’t work either. “The drugs just turned me into a zombie,” he says. “And although I talked through everything else in my life during counselling, I just couldn’t talk about the grief. It was too difficult. When I felt it bubbling up I would just change the subject.”

Every year, thousands of people in the UK are diagnosed with depression and these numbers keep rising. While antidepressants are a common treatment, studies suggest that more than half of all patients don’t respond to the first drug they’re given. A significant proportion of people with depression fail to find something that works for them, ending up cycling through periods of treatment and relapse.

In search of a more effective approach, researchers at Imperial College London have been finding out whether the mind- and mood-altering properties of psychedelic drugs such as psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) could be helpful for treating psychiatric conditions. Led by Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, a team of researchers have been running a clinical trial testing the effects of psilocybin on a small group of people with intractable depression. People just like Kirk.

The psychedelic spa

“We’d been doing brain imaging studies looking at the effects of psilocybin which suggested that it might have antidepressant effects,” explains Carhart-Harris. “We also knew that psychedelic drugs can dissolve the ego [the sense of ‘self’] temporarily. This is accompanied by the possibility of emotional, personal, philosophical and existential insight, so it was a case of joining the dots.”

Spurred on by a previous study showing that people who took psilocybin reported a long-term increase in psychological wellbeing and a trial showing the drug’s benefits for treating anxiety and depression in terminal cancer patients, Carhart-Harris put together a plan to test whether it could relieve treatment-resistant depression.

Despite receiving some funding from the Medical Research Council in 2012…

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WARNING: Psilocybin and hallucinogenic mushrooms are a Class A drug according to UK law. Anyone caught in possession of such substances will face up to seven years in prison, an unlimited fine, or both. More information and support for those affected by substance abuse problems can be found at bit.ly/drug_support

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