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Can psilocybin treat depression better than known antidepressants?

Can psilocybin treat depression better than known antidepressants?

When you think about magic mushrooms or LSD, it is likely you are thinking about someone having a psychedelic trip in his living room with some of his best mates. You probably won’t even consider thinking about scientists working around the clock investigating these magical substances. Let’s be fair: Psychedelic drugs tend to be more associated with hippies and the counterculture of the 60s than white coat scientists doing clinical trials.

Mind-altering substances

But that is about to change. More and more researchers are studying how these mind-altering substances may also have the potential to heal our minds and bodies. The beneficial effects keep being shown over and over. Several studies have found that psychedelics may be useful in treating mental illnesses such as depression, addiction or post-traumatic stress disorder in cases where other treatments have failed. Now, a group of British researchers have started the largest study so far in this field in order to analyze if any of the hallucinogenic drugs could be more effective than a reference drug for the treatment of depression.

Scientists at Imperial College London University have a sound plan to research the effects of the magical compound psilocybin. They will compare the effectiveness of psilocybin, the psychoactive compound present in hallucinogenic mushrooms, with that of an antidepressant drug based on escitalopram, belonging to the group of SSRIs. "Psychedelics have a revolutionary potential and that is not an exaggeration," says Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris, who will lead the study. The interest in these psychedelic substances were enormous in the 50s and 60s. Back then it was already believed that psychedelic drugs had promising potential to treat many mental disorders and more than a thousand studies were made, but the controversial substances soon became illegal in leading countries like the United States, and research stopped.

Research rebirth

Although some pioneering studies on the potential of psychedelic drugs were made during the 1990s, it was not until the mid-2000s that there was a kind of ‘rebirth’ in their research, thanks in part to several Johns Hopkins University studies. This University found that psilocybin reduced depression in 80% of patients with lethal cancer. Groundbreaking to say the least. It was also found that it was much more effective in getting people to stop smoking than the treatments available at the time, when it was combined with cognitive-behavioral therapies.

According to a study published in the Journal of Scientific Reports, psilocybin affects two parts of the brain: the amygdala , which is very involved in how we process emotions such as fear and anxiety, and the default mode network (DMN), which is a set of brain regions that collaborate with each other and that have to do with a large part of the activity developed while the mind is at rest. Although it is still unknown exactly how psilocybin affects the brain, Carhart-Harris believes that it "turns on" the mind and pushes it out of its stiffness, allowing people to get out of deep-rooted and self-destructive thought patterns.

5 years

So when could we expect psilocybin medication? Well, that might take a while. Even if the new experiments show that the use of psilocybin is safe and effective, it is likely to take at least five years before the compound gets a license for medical use. The process for approving new drugs is notoriously slow, expensive and bureaucratic, says James Rucker, a professor at the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London University.

Carhart-Harris does add that even if the new clinical trials confirm that psychedelics may be effective in treating depression, medication might still not be for everyone. "Some people do not want to go down into the depths of their soul or encounter the demons or traumas they have experienced, or face dark aspects of our human condition that we all have inside," he says.