Magic mushrooms are set to become the UK’s ultimate anti-depression weapon

Magic mushrooms - iStockphoto

Magic mushrooms – iStockphoto

Brexit could lead to a boom in psychedelic treatments, scientists say.

A wave of companies have been approved to try the radical approach under the new rules drawn up after Britain left the European Union.

The use of psychedelic drugs to treat conditions such as depression could become a standard treatment within five years, scientists said, with the hope that significant strides can be made from a single session of “psychedelic-assisted therapy”.

Trials are underway using “short-acting” drugs that give patients a 20-minute psychedelic experience – which may include hallucinations – followed by a two-hour treatment session.

Resetting brain networks

Experts said the approach appears to “rewire networks in the brain,” helping to end ingrained negative thought patterns and making patients much more receptive to treatment.

British company Small Pharma is leading the world’s first regulated clinical trial combining the hallucinogenic drug DMT (dimethyltryptamine) with psychotherapy in patients with major depressive disorder.

The trials, which are due to announce their findings within months, include 42 patients with the condition and follow a phase one trial in healthy volunteers.

Dr Carol Routledge, chief medical and scientific officer at Small Pharma, said she hoped such treatments could soon become a standard way to treat depression, in a way that “gets to the root cause” of the problem, rather than just covering it up. The symptoms .

He said changes to medical regulation in response to Brexit meant it was possible to speed up the trial process and ensure drugs that showed promise were made available more quickly.

After Britain left the European Union, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) created an “Innovative Licensing and Access Pathway (ILAP)” which aims to speed up the time it takes to get new medicines to patients.

The Small Pharma trial awarded ILAP along with other companies testing MDMA in combination with treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the use of compounds found in “magic mushrooms” for treatment-resistant depression.

Investigating the use of psychedelics

Meanwhile, British start-up Clerkenwell Health is to begin trials using the same compound – psilocybin – to help people cope with a terminal diagnosis and is exploring the use of psychedelics for depression and smoking cessation.

Dr Routledge said psychedelic drugs hold great promise in treating mental health problems, saying they could provide almost immediate benefits, compared to antidepressants, which often take up to three months to take full effect.

“Based on the initial data that we already have, and other companies have, there will be a pretty immediate impact,” he said, with the results coming from just one session.

“In terms of the psychedelic experience, we’re talking about 20 minutes, and then the integration therapy afterwards, in a two-and-a-half-hour session in total … we expect the antidepressant effect to be extremely durable … to last maybe three, four or five months,” he said.

The drug development expert said findings from ongoing clinical trials are needed to prove its effectiveness, but said existing data showed promising results.

The scientist said that the therapeutic pathway works completely differently from that of antidepressants.

“We believe that this treatment will really get to the root cause, instead of just alleviating the symptoms, you’ll really get to the root cause. That, possibly, is why these molecules will be so effective.”

Imaging data suggest that psychedelics act on brain networks, particularly the default mode network, which is thought to be particularly active in depression.

“This ties into the ruminative negative thought processes that many of these internalizing conditions have… these ingrained thought patterns in their neural connections.”

While the main class of antidepressants – SSRIs – don’t “really touch” such networks, psychedelics are thought to suppress such activity, making neural connections more flexible and increasing brain plasticity.

“You can bring these networks back into the brain, and then that makes the brain much more receptive to the treatment, so that’s why we introduce it right after,” he said.

Out of body sensations

In the test, participants can expect to go through a psychedelic experience, which could include visual or auditory hallucinations and out-of-body sensations.

Dr Routledge said it was “absolutely possible” that such a treatment could become a first-line treatment for major depression.

“It’s going to take a lot of education and awareness … there are a lot of misconceptions about psychedelics, but it’s like any drug, as long as it’s the right dose and the safety is checked, with a therapist sitting by your side.”

He said new access pathways created by the MHRA in the wake of Brexit could speed up the journey, ensuring promising innovative treatments reach patients faster.

“ILAP brings together many different organizations so you can have a real conversation about how to advance your molecule. It’s all about speeding up treatment for the patient.”

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