CBS 58 Investigates: Psychedelic drugs and depression

CBS 58 Investigates: Psychedelic drugs and depression

During the COVID-19 pandemic, rates of depression, suicide and addiction are rising. 

But help may be on the way, and from drugs considered some of the most dangerous in the world. 

A study released in November by Johns Hopkins University shows two doses of psilocybin, along with psychotherapy, produces “rapid and large reductions in depressive symptoms.”

Psilocybin is the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, which is listed as a Schedule I substance by the DEA. Schedule one drugs are classified as having no medical use and a high potential for abuse. 

The DEA made that classification In 1971, and researchers like Dr. Alan Davis from the Psychedelic Research Unit at Johns Hopkins University say it has delayed important treatments. “It’s taken decades to overcome that kind of stigma, and we still deal with it to some extent,” Davis said. 

Participants in the Johns Hopkins study describe losing hope after other treatments failed. But the results of this treatment have researchers like Davis hopeful. “One week after the treatment was completed, about 67-percent of people had a clinically significant response,” Davis said, “and 58-percent of people were in complete remission from depression.” Those results are four times more effective than any antidepressant drug currently on the market. 

What happens next is a larger-scale study, which is being coordinated by the Usona Institute just outside of Madison. Research that could revolutionize the way we treat depression, which kills tens of thousands of of Americans every year, is happening in our backyard. 

Charles Raison, director of clinical and translational research at the Usona Institute, says the framework of larger-scale study should be familiar to most people. “What Usona Institute is doing is not so different than what the vaccine makers are doing, which is you need to do a certain type of very rigorous study to show that the medicine works for the FDA to approve its use,” he said.

Raison says the reason that psilocybin treatments last is that they alter brain chemistry. “Most of the data suggest that acutely what they do is that they take the part of the brain that is really where the ego lives, where the sense of ‘I’ lives, and they make it disintegrate a little bit,” Raison said, “and when that happens, deeper older parts of the brain get to be heard.” 

This larger study will take about two years. If the results mirror that of the Johns Hopkins study, we could see psilocybin approved by the FDA as a treatment for depression soon after. “Based on the data to date, these are the most transformational, astounding things that I have seen or many of us have seen for the last 40 or 50 years,” Raison said. 

While the war on drugs may have set research back, attitudes are changing. Last month, Oregon voted to legalize psilocybin for therapy. Psilocybin is also being studied for anorexia, Alzheimer’s disease, even quitting smoking. Studies are also being conducted for LSD and MDMA, the active ingredient in ecstasy. None of these drugs are proven to be effective, all of them are illegal to possess in Wisconsin, and carry long prison sentences. 

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