The Case for Psychedelics for Depression Is Getting Stronger

A day after Oregon legalizes psilocybin, a new study adds to a growing body of literature that psychedelics can be useful for psychiatry

Dana G Smith
Elemental
Published in
5 min readNov 4, 2020

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Photo: The Washington Post/Getty Images

This is the kind of news you might need the day after a nail-biting election night: A new study released today showed that psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient in hallucinogenic mushrooms, is a powerful antidepressant. The research, unintentionally published with a remarkable sense of timing, comes a day after Oregon voted to become the first state in the country to legalize the drug in order to enable its use in therapeutic settings.

Researchers found that two separate doses of the psychedelic compound, combined with a total of 11 hours of therapy in the weeks before and after taking the drug, significantly reduced depression symptoms in 71% of people. More than half of the clinical trial participants (54%) were considered to be in remission for their depression four weeks after the treatment.

“These folks were people who… had lived with depression for decades. Their current depressive episode on average was two years or longer,” says Alan Davis, PhD, an adjunct assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University, who led the study. “They had tried lots of medications, most of them had been in therapy of different types, and they had experienced some benefit from those, but it never really took the depression away. So the fact that this treatment was so effective in this type of population was pretty remarkable.”

The study, published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, was small, conducted in only 24 people with an average age of 39 years, but the benefit was so large that experts say the results are promising for future research.

“What the earlier, smaller sample sizes do for you is show a proof of concept that there is value in exploring this topic further,” says Adam Stern, MD, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School who was not involved in the research. “I think that psilocybin-assisted therapy is a potentially really exciting avenue for future treatment that definitely needs further investigation before it starts becoming available for…

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Dana G Smith
Elemental

Health and science writer • PhD in 🧠 • Words in Scientific American, STAT, The Atlantic, The Guardian • Award-winning Covid-19 coverage for Elemental