A group of people in the Dublin area are undergoing trials involving the ingestion of psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, to assess its effectiveness in the treatment of severe depression.*
The study is one of several ongoing around the world to assess the effectiveness of psychedelic drugs on people with treatment-resistant depression.
Researchers believe psilocybin, a psychedelic which is taken recreationally, may help depression sufferers achieve insights into their conditions in combination with talking therapy.
"Psychedelics cause an altered state of consciousness and changes thoughts, perceptions and feelings. That can be harnessed by psychotherapy to provide novel insights into things or help people reconceptualise problem thoughts and behaviour," said Dr John Kelly, a lead researcher in the project and a clinical lecturer in psychiatry at Trinity College.
Seven Irish people are involved in the trial, which was suspended due to the Covid-19 outbreak but is due to resume shortly. More extensive testing is planned for later this year, with an increased number of subjects and increased doses.
Psilocybin assisted psychology (PAP) has attracted significant interest in recent years as a potentially highly effective treatment for depression but this is the first time it has been tested in Ireland.
Psilocybin remains an illegal drug for recreational purposes and its use in the Irish study, which is based out of Tallaght hospital, is heavily regulated by the Health Products Regulatory Authority.
“There is a tremendous amount of bureaucracy to go through which has taken a great deal of time,” said Dr Kelly. “These are magic mushrooms which, like all psychedelic substances, are illegal.”
Subjects undertake three “preparation sessions” with a therapist before coming in to take the drug. They are then given a dose of 1mg, 10mg or 25mg of psilocybin; it is a double-blind study meaning neither the researchers nor subjects know who receives what dose.
The higher dose “will certainly affect your state of consciousness”, said Dr Kelly. “For many people they will experience a state of connectivity with others and the environment which lasts about six hours or so,” said Dr Kelly.
At least one therapist stays with the subject for the duration of “the experience” before they are sent home with a relative or close friend. This is followed by at least three more therapy sessions. “It’s quiet intense. There’s a lot to it,” said Dr Kelly.
“The preliminary data appears positive albeit in small sample sizes. We should wait for the final results but I think it should help in future.”
The study has received a lot of interest from people in mental distress but most fall short of “the stringent criteria” required for inclusion, he said. “That can be disappointing for people.”
Dr Kelly said that depending on the results of the study, the treatment could be very beneficial in treating the expected spike in mental illness as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
*This article was amended on August 29th 2020