For years, scientists have been looking into turning so-called “magic mushrooms” as a treatment for depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse and other health problems.
But progress has been slow, in part because the benefits seemed dependent on having potentially dangerous mind-altering psychedelic experiences that often couldn’t win financial support or legal approval.
Now researchers at the University of Maryland say they may have found a way to get to the destination without the trip.
“That’s always been the assumption, that you needed the psychedelic experience,” said Scott Thompson, professor and chair of the department of physiology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and senior author of the study.
“And there is no denying that taking a psychedelic compound produces an experience that people find powerful and incredibly meaningful,” he said. “It’s been a leap of faith that is why people were feeling less depressed.”
Studies so far of psilocybin, the hallucinogenic component of the mushrooms, and other promising psychedelic treatments derived from LSD and the drug commonly known as ecstasy have all involved these experiences.
Thompson, however, said he’s possibly found a way to block the psychedelic experience but still maintain the antidepressant effects of the drugs — a finding that could potentially lead to their more widespread acceptance and use.
The study, conducted in mice, comes at something of a turning point for psychedelic drugs that were banned for years even in research by federal regulators; the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration still lists them among the most dangerous substances.
But more recently the government has permitted, and occasionally funded, a growing number of studies in labs at Johns Hopkins University, the University of Maryland and several other academic and private centers nationally.
The studies have been showing benefits, including one published this month in the Journal Nature that found MDMA, known as ecstasy, aided those with PTSD. The study, the first late-stage psychedelic trial in people, could help the drug get federal approval to be brought to market in the next few years by a California-based nonprofit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies.