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  • Posted April 24, 2024

Trying 'Magic Mushroom' Drug to Ease Depression? It Has Side Effects

Many people with tough-to-treat depression may be trying psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, as an alternative to antidepressants.

Thinking that it's a "natural" drug, folks might assume it comes without side effects.

That assumption would be wrong.

People in a new study who took psilocybin often experienced headache, nausea, anxiety, dizziness and elevated blood pressure -- side effects similar to those seen with regular antidepressants, according to a team from the University of Georgia in Athens (UGA).

The good news: Such side effects were only temporary. It's less clear if longer-term side effects might emerge with time, the researchers noted.

The short-term side effects "are what we may expect from your traditional antidepressants because those medications work in a similar fashion to psilocybin. They both target serotonin receptors,” explained senior study author Dr. Joshua Caballero, an associate professor in UGA's College of Pharmacy.

“It's very encouraging," he added in a university news release, "because the studies we examined consist of just one or two doses per patient, and we're finding that the beneficial effects of psilocybin may stay for months when treating depression.”

Psilocybin was shunned by the medical community for decades because, at higher doses, it can have hallucinatory properties. But used under the guidance and supervision of a therapist, the drug is having a comeback as a new form of antidepressant.

But what about any side effects?

To answer that question, Caballero's group looked at data from six different studies on the supervised use of single doses of psilocybin against depression. The studies included a total of 528 people.

They found a number of side effects, among which nausea, dizziness and elevated blood pressure were most common. These effects appeared to dissipate within 48 hours.

Importantly, "psilocybin use was not associated with risk of paranoia and transient thought disorder," the researchers said.

The findings were published recently in the journal JAMA Network Open.

“At some point, I do think that psilocybin will become a treatment option, and when it does, we need to know what the side effects and potential long-term complications are,” Caballero said.

Always use the drug under the supervision of a trusted therapist, he said. One recent study found this was key to successful treatment.

“I would urge caution for people that are thinking this is a magic cure and then go out and take excess mushrooms," Caballero said. "Without proper monitoring, you won't know the concentration of psilocybin in those mushrooms and you could have a bad trip or other negative outcome.”

The researchers added that the longer-term effects, if any, of psilocybin therapy are unknown.

“There is still a lot we don't know about the potential long-term side effects and more serious rare side effects of psilocybin use,” Caballero said. He noted that standard antidepressants already carry a boxed warning from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration regarding the potential for an increased risk of suicidal thoughts and suicide in young adults.

Could psilocybin use have a similar risk? It's just not clear yet, Cabellero and colleagues said.

Still, the overall news is good for folks battling tough depression.

"If we can safely use this drug in a controlled environment, I think it could be groundbreaking for a lot of patients that need it," Caballero said.

More information

Find out more about the use of psilocybin against depression at the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

SOURCE: University of Georgia, news release, April 23, 2024

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