Psilocybin is actually being used in several clinical trials, so it could indeed be used to treat depression in the near future. Lead researcher Katrin Preller of the University Hospital of Psychiatry Zurich explained that psilocybin has much more specific targets than antidepressants currently on the market: It pretty much targets only two specific brain receptors. That makes it easier to get a handle on how it works and who it should help, at least in theory.
It also means that scientists can use it to see how those specific brain receptors change behavior.
Preller and her colleagues wanted to see what the psilocybin-associated receptors could do for something called "social pain," which is exactly what it sounds like — the pain associated with rejection. They triggered it in their 21 study subjects by creating a computer game where a virtual game of catch was played with two other players who increasingly excluded them from the activity. Meanwhile, subjects' brain activity was being scanned.
The study subjects played this game under the influence of either a small dose of psilocybin or a placebo pill, then filled out a survey. Their responses showed that they were aware of being excluded on both occasions — they weren't too high to notice that the ball wasn't coming their way. But when they took the psilocybin, in addition to an increased sense of "unity" commonly reported in hallucinogenic trials, they indicated fewer signs of social pain.
It's too small of a study to draw any strong conclusions from, and the participants were all healthy — they didn't actually suffer from severe social anxiety or depression. But Preller thinks her team has taken a step toward uncovering the mechanism behind a possible treatment.
"It seems like by stimulating these two receptors, serotonin 1A and serotonin 2A, psilocybin is acting on brain areas which are responsible for our feeling of social pain — the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex. Furthermore, we showed that another neurotransmitter, aspartate, seems to be involved as well," Preller said. Serotonin is a chemical that relays signals between different parts of the brain, and many scientists believe that a disruption in this process can cause depression or anxiety. It's possible that psilocybin — or drugs inspired by it — could target these problems more directly than antidepressants currently on the market.
"It might be possible to develop new medication targeting these specific mechanisms," Preller said. "In general, new treatments for psychiatric disorders are rare, and there is still a great need for improvement."
Note: Rachel isn't saying you should go do 'shrooms. Nothing in this post says you should go do 'shrooms. That would be illegal in most places, and probably ill-advised. You definitely shouldn't go looking for mushrooms to eat without a trained mycologist, magical or otherwise. Rachel is a trained mycologist, but that doesn't mean she'll do 'shrooms with you. She will probably make you some wild mushroom risotto if you ask nicely. Probably.