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Psychedelics May Help Alleviate Symptoms of Depression

Update Date: Jun 09, 2017 09:49 AM EDT

New research suggests that ayahuasca, a psychedelic brew of bark and leaves used by indigenous groups in the Amazon during healing ceremonies, and psilocybin, the hallucinogenic found in "magic" mushrooms, may be useful in treating depression and other psychiatric disorders.

A study of the effects of ayahuasca, as reported by Discover Magazine, was conducted by neuroscientists at the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Norte in Brazil and presented at the Psychedelic Science 2017 conference in Oakland, California, in April 2017. Although not yet peer-reviewed, it suggests that psychedelics such as ayahuasca can be used to treat depression and psychiatric disorders in patients that have seen little improvement with more traditional medications and therapies such as anti-depressants.

Dráulio Barros de Araújo, the neuroscientist who led the first study with his team in 2015, found that one dose of ayahuasca, (between approximately four and seven ounces), alleviated symptoms of major depression in seven volunteers. In 2016, he repeated the study with 17 volunteers, and had similar results. Participants experienced no serious side effects and felt relief for the duration of the 21-day trial.

Separately, Araújo conducted a placebo-controlled study with 35 volunteers. Controlling for the placebo effect is especially important in depression trials, as studies show up to 40% of patients respond to a placebo. The patients were randomly assigned to receive a dosage of ayahuasca or the placebo. People in both groups felt better the next day; a week later, the patients who had received ayahuasca experienced a significant decrease in their depression.

A second study presented at the conference by Leo Roseman, a doctoral neuroscience student at Imperial College London, reports similar results using psilocybin, the hallucinogenic compound found in "magic" mushrooms. In Roseman's study, 20 participants were given two dosages of the drug, the second dose large enough to induce a psychedelic experience. Discover Magazine reported that all participants showed improvement a week after the study, and some participants felt better for up to 5 weeks after the study, while others declined.

These psychedelic drugs show promise as antidepressants because of one special factor: the intensity of a person's peak experience during one of the clinically-induced trips correlates directly with the amount of improvement they experience.

Unlike traditional medications, psychedelics like ayahuasca and psilocybin seem to intensitfy both positive and negative emotions associated with depression in the brain, as opposed to only negative. A person may experience several psychological states during the "peak experience," such as feelings of unity or dissolution of the self and a positive mood. 

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