Magic Mushrooms: The Key to Treating Severe Depression?
A hallucinogenic compound found in magic mushrooms may be the key to battling severe depression, but research trials have stalled due to legal red tape that makes the use of illegal drugs in research almost impossible.
UK Researchers Find Therapeutic Use for Magic Mushroom Chemical
Researchers from the UK believe the chemical psilocybin, which is the psychedelic ingredient in magic mushrooms, could be used to effectively turn down the regions of the brain, including the anterior cingulate cortex, associated with severe depression. These brain regions, which appear overstimulated in those with depression disorders, are responsible for many of the characteristics of depression including patients dwelling on feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness.
The research team, headed by former UK government drugs adviser David Nutt and involving a team at Imperial College London, believe that psilocybin may be the breakthrough needed to combat severe depression which cannot be treated with common anti-depressant medications.
The team, using 10 volunteers for preliminary research, have also demonstrated a potential for increased emotional well-being and that this emotional improvement was shown to last up to two weeks later after administering the drug.
Though obviously limited by the size and scope of this preliminary research, for instance that the small study involved volunteers, Nutt’s research builds on an existing body of work that has shown psilocybin improves a sense of well-being and may lessen anxiety.
So well received was this research that the team was able to secure a half a million pound ($842,000) grant from the Medical Research Council to begin a wider study. There’s just one problem — current law is stopping them from progressing any further because psilocybin is classed as an illegal drug.
Outdated Laws Mean Research is Too Costly to Continue
UK and EU regulations both rate psilocybin as a dangerous drug.
In the UK, in fact, psilocybin is rated a class-A drug, the designation given to the supposedly most dangerous illegal substances. The EU, meanwhile, classes psilocybin as a Schedule 1 drug, meaning that under EU law the drug has no recognized therapeutic purpose and should be classed as a dangerous substance to which access must be heavily controlled.
As such, under current law, scientists are prohibited from growing their own research supply of the drug and must buy them from manufacturers under strict and costly controls. As Nutt has told the press this week, despite the fact the team need only a relatively small supply of the drug in order to advance their research, finding a willing manufacturer to provide the drug at an affordable rate has proved impossible.
The team needs only a supply worth, in terms of street value, a couple of hundred pounds. Yet due to the levies placed on the manufacture of psilocybin, the drug companies the team approached came back with figures of around £100,000 ($153, 160).
On top of this, only four hospitals in the UK have a license to hold psilocybin. This would make rolling out the drug as a prospective treatment incredibly difficult.
Researcher Hits Out At ‘Primitive’ Drug Laws
Nutt, speaking ahead of the the UK Festival of Neuroscience conference this week, argues that EU and UK policy is antiquated and must be changed.
“The whole situation is bedevilled by this primitive, old-fashioned attitude that Schedule 1 drugs could never have therapeutic potential, and so they have to be made impossible to access.”
“The knock-on effect is this profound impairment of research,” Nutt continues. “We are the first people ever to have done a psilocybin study in the UK, but we are still hunting for a company that can manufacture the drug to GMP standards for the clinical trial, even though we’ve been trying for a year to find one. We live in a world of insanity in terms of regulating drugs at present. The whole field is so bogged down by these intransient regulations, so that even if you have a good idea, you may never get it into the clinic.”
Nutt is no stranger to pointing out what he perceives as problems in the UK’s drug laws. He was infamously ousted from a position as chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs in 2009 after repeatedly clashing with the government and having the audacity to point out that according to research, alcohol and tobacco would appear much more harmful for most people than LSD, ecstasy and cannabis.
Nutt’s position here is likely to win more support, however.
Depression is now thought to be the largest cause of disability in Europe and while there are a number of treatments, around 10% of patients will fail to respond to current drug therapies.
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