Next year, if all goes to plan, a dozen patients with clinical depression will be invited to a UK laboratory and given psilocybin – the psychedelic ingredient found in magic mushrooms. Over the next four or five hours, many of these volunteers will experience dream-like euphoria as colours, smells and sounds become more intense, perception of time distorts and their sense of self dissolves. Some may feel a surge of electricity through their bodies, sudden clarity of thought or hilarity. Others may experience anxiety, confusion or paranoia. These hallucinogenic effects will be short-lived, but the impact of the drug on the volunteers could be long-lasting.
There is tentative evidence that psilocybin, along with other psychedelic drugs, can "reset" abnormal functioning of the brain if given in a safe, controlled way as part of therapy. For those raised on the post-1960s dogma that magic mushrooms and LSD unleash mental illness, trigger flashbacks and cause personality changes, the idea that they could actually cure disorders of the brain is mind-blowing.
The pilot study will involve patients who have failed to respond to conventional treatment and is the idea of Professor David Nutt and Dr Robin Carhart-Harris at Imperial College's Neuropsychopharmacology Centre in London. They argue that psychedelic drugs could prove beneficial to millions of people and that it is time to end the 50-year stigma surrounding their therapeutic use. Nutt and Carhart-Harris have already used MRI scanners to study changes in the brain while 15 volunteers took psilocybin. A similar study on 20 volunteers given LSD has just finished.
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