Psilocybin also has had promising trials in people for depression and a range of other conditions, and researchers believe it too could become a commercial product soon.
But their use still could be limited by the presumed need for daylong, professionally guided psychedelic experiences. Thompson said that could put essential treatment out of reach for many people because of the time commitment, cost and availability of trained professionals.
Further some people with serious illnesses such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia could have dangerous reactions to a psychedelic experience. Others just may not want such treatment even if traditional drugs such as Prozac don’t work or take too long to have an effect.
“The idea is to make this more available to more people,” Thompson said.
The effort is still in its early stages. In the initial study, he targeted one brain receptor, known as 2A, understood to be responsible for the psychedelic experience.
To test his theory, he stressed a group of mice for several hours a day over two to three weeks. Instead of measuring their mood, he measured their ability to work for rewards — in this case, sugar water. People, and mice, suffering depression lose the feeling of pleasure from such a reward.
Stressed mice didn’t want the sugar water, but a day after a dose of psilocybin plus a drug to block the psychedelic response, the stressed mice went for the treat.
“These findings show that activation of the receptor causing the psychedelic effect isn’t absolutely required for the antidepressant benefits, at least in mice,” Thompson said. “But the same experiment needs to be performed in depressed human subjects.”
Others remain skeptical that it’s possible to separate the psychedelic experience from the benefits, including another researcher in the field, Dr. Collin Reiff, assistant professor in New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine.
“It is missing the whole point,” he said. “The psychedelic experience is largely responsible for the outcome.”