Can psychedelic psilocybin make magic mushrooms a cure for severe depression?
NEWS on Magic Mushrooms. Can they be used to cure depression? The key component is something called psilocybin. The theory is that it can stop patients dwelling on their perceived inadequacies. Psilocybin turns off the brain’s anterior cingulate cortex, an area that appears to control emotion. It is a psychedelic drug.
Says Professor David Nutt (more nominative determinism at work), neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London:
“People with depression have overactive default mode networks and so ruminate on themselves, on their inadequacies, on their badness, that they are worthless, that they have failed – to an extent that is sometimes delusional. Again psilo-cybin appears to block that activity and stops this obsessive rumination.”
The Medical Research Council gave Nutt and his team a £550,000 grant.
Professor David Nutt was once the Government’s chief drug adviser. In 2009 he said ecstasy was less dangerous than horseriding. He also said alcohol was more dangerous than cannabis. He was sacked. The the Home Secretary Alan Johnson said at the time:
“He was asked to go because he cannot be both a government adviser and a campaigner against government policy.”
Nutt explains his problems with psilocybin:
“We only need a relatively small amount of the drug, an order worth only a few hundred pounds. If we have to pay £100,000 [fees for providers and licences] we simply cannot afford to carry out the rest of the study. We have not given up but it is proving very difficult.”
The free-growing ‘shrooms are Class A drugs. This means they can’t be manufactured in the UK without a special licence. The Home Office tells us:
Private hospitals require licences for Schedule 1 and 2 drugs only.
NHS hospitals only require a licence for Schedule 1 drugs.
University research departments do not require licences to possess and supply drugs in Schedules 2, 3, 4 Part I, 4 Part II and Schedule 5, but they do require licences to produce any of those drugs and to produce, possess and/or supply drugs in Schedule 1.
Once a licence has been issued it is the responsibility of the licensee to inform the Home Office of any adverse incidents.
How much does the licence cost?
“We live in a world of insanity in terms of regulating drugs. The whole field is so bogged down by these intransigent regulations, so that even if you have a good idea, you may never get it into the clinic.”
“We have no evidence to suggest that the current listing of psilocybin as a Schedule 1 substance is a barrier to attracting funding for legitimate research.”
It was only in 2005 that Magic Mushrooms became illegal. Before the Drugs Act 2005 fresh magic mushrooms were legal but those which were dried or prepared for use were not.
And the drug has been used in clinical trials. In 2011, Dr Michael Mosley took them for his BBC4 series. As he notes on the BBC:
I took part in the UK’s first scientific trial of psilocybin – the active component of magic mushrooms. It was one of the strangest experiences of my life… It also has a dark past. As well as being used recreationally, psilocybin and other hallucinogenic drugs were used in the 1950s and 60s as part of brain-washing experiments by the US military.
Since it is a class A drug, taking it would normally be illegal. But the former government drugs adviser, Professor David Nutt of Bristol University and a team from Imperial College believe that psilocybin is worth investigating as it may have a role to play in medicine, possibly as a treatment for severe depression.
They want to study what psilocybin does to the brains of healthy volunteers. They have permission to administer the drug within the controlled environment of a clinical trial.
Which is why, one rainy afternoon, I turned up at a brain scanning unit belonging to Cardiff University
So. The Home Office is right. Psilocybin has been tested. Fees were not an impossible barrier.
On Russia Today, we read:
Saying that a group in Colombia unhindered “by the baggage of drug laws” and “drug controls” might beat his team to the punch, Nutt insisted that even a successful trial would not clear the way for medicinal psilocybin.
Professor Nutt has made comparisons to Colombia before.
He said a “rational approach” to drugs, as seen in the Netherlands, Portugal and Colombia – where the government has announced plans to legalise personal use of drugs like ecstasy – would have more impact.
The story seems to be more about Professor Nutt seeking to highlight the UK’s oddly selective attitude to drugs – alcohol is pushed; cannabis is banned – than magic mushrooms. Compare the UK unfavourably to Colombia, a place synonymous with cocaine, and his point is made. As a spot of PR, Nutt’s hit the mark.
PS – On an entirely personal note, depression runs in my family. It is an illness. My father was prescribed electric shock therapy. It terrified him. So did the pills he was told to take. He said they made him feel awful. He flushed them away. Had he have been legally allowed to take a dose of cannabis, ecstasy or some other banned drug it might have helped. It might have been made him more able to go out for a walk and to talk and talk. He might have forgotten himself. Worth a try, no? Yes. Definitely worth a try. He tried the Government’s pills. And they failed.