Psilocybin, the psychoactive compound in magic mushrooms, may lead to new therapies for treating depression. Previous research, conducted by Professor David Nutt, Head of the Neuropsychopharmacology Department at Imperial College, London in collaboration with Amanda Feilding of the Beckley Foundation, has shown that the drug turns down activity in areas of the brain that are pathologically active in those suffering from depression. It is believed that this excessive activity is linked to the unbridled negative self-reflection experienced by depressed patients. Participants in these and other studies with psilocybin often experience sustained positive mood for at least several weeks following the session.
This research served as a pilot that allowed the group to secure £550,000 in funding from the Medial Research Council. However, the research is in danger of being over before it has even begun due to legal red tape. Government regulations governing the use of illegal drugs in research make it very difficult for permission to be obtained for their synthesis, thus artificially inflating their final retail price. Professor Nutt has said that even though creating the small amount required would only cost a few hundred pounds, the cost of psilocybin for the project would be £100,000 . This is a prohibitive amount and would not leave enough of the budget to actually complete the study.
The response of the press to this grant has been largely positive , although Prof Nutt’s controversial firing as a government drugs adviser and the unconventional past of our Director Amanda Feilding have allowed several easy tabloid hits. However, as Sam Leith of the Evening Standard pointed out “To seek to derail a serious bid to help ill people with ad hominem anti-liberal woo-woo isn’t just babyish. It’s actively wicked” .
We would like to add to his sensible remarks by pointing out that the Medical Research Council does not hand out research grants lightly, and that all sides are convinced the evidence is enough to carry out this trial – and our work will continue to be based upon evidence, regardless of the knee-jerk reactions we might receive on the way.
Depression is the leading cause of disability world-wide according to the WHO, and although there are many effective treatments, up to a third of individuals do not respond. Many current treatments are based upon chronic medication, unfortunately increasing incidence of side effects (which for anti-depressants include nausea, loss of appetite, low sex drive and insomnia) and also costs of treatment. In contrast, psilocybin as a clinical intervention is proposed to require only a handful of sessions – backed up by research finding long term mood improvement after just one session. It is therefore crucial that this new research be allowed to proceed.
The Beckley Foundation has been carrying out research into potential medical applications of psychoactive compounds for 15 years. Pioneering work, such as our pilot psilocybin imaging research at Imperial, was carried out at a time when drug abuse and addiction were far more stigmatised than today and medicinal benefits were widely unknown. The fact that a study such as this can secure government funding is an encouraging sign that today the tide is finally turning. However, the perseverance of such aggressively prohibitive obstacles to using a controlled substance in clinical research makes it clear that there is still some way to go in the search for an evidence-based approach to drugs policy. As a dual scientific and political NGO the foundation is in a unique position to lend its specialist expertise in moving towards such a future.
 Griffiths R, Richards W, Johnson M, McCann U, Jesse R. Mystical-type experiences occasioned by psilocybin mediate the attribution of personal meaning and spiritual significance 14 months later. J Psychopharmacol. 2008 Aug;22(6):621-32. doi: 10.1177/0269881108094300. Epub 2008 Jul 1.
 Magic mushrooms’ psychedelic ingredient could help treat people with severe depression The Observer 7/4/13
‘Absurd’ rules ‘obstruct research’ The Evening Standard 7/4/13
Magic Mushrooms treatment for depression being delayed by drug laws The Telegraph 7/4/13
Sam Leith: Mushrooms aren’t all about getting stoned The Evening Standard 8/4/13
WHO, New study presents state of the world’s health (2008)