Psilocybin Research in 2021 – The Year in Review

A Brief History of Psilocybin

Psilocybin is the primary psychoactive compound found in “magic” mushrooms. Various cultures throughout the world have used psilocybin-containing mushrooms for thousands of years for religious and spiritual purposes. Like most psychedelic drugs, psilocybin acts primarily on the serotonin neurotransmitter sites, which are found throughout the brain.

Albert Hoffman first extracted psilocybin from magic mushrooms in a lab in 1957.[i] Throughout the 1960s, psilocybin became widely recognized in the fields of psychology and psychiatry as holding potential for therapeutic benefits for wide range of maladies, including alcoholism and autism. The popularity of magic mushrooms in the “hippie” counter-culture movement prompted the Nixon Administration to form the Drug Enforcement Administration, which subsequently classified all psychedelics as schedule I drugs, thwarting the further research of these drugs until only recently.

Modern Understanding of Psilocybin Effects on the Human Brain

Over the past few years, there has been a gradual yet steady resurgence in interest over potential therapeutic benefits of psilocybin and other psychedelic drugs. There are as many as 50 publicly-traded companies that are currently doing trials of various psychedelic drugs.[ii]

Some of the benefits of psilocybin include:

2021 Psilocybin Research in Review

At the end of 2020, researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that two doses of psilocybin, combined with supportive psychotherapy, produced rapid and large reductions in depressive symptoms for people diagnosed with major depressive disorder.[viii] The study found that half of the participants achieved full remission four weeks after the treatment. What’s more, the trial found that psilocybin was approximately four times more effective than traditional anti-depressant drugs.

In a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in April 2021 researchers found psilocybin to be as effective as a traditional SSRI at mediating the effects of major depressive disorder, and with fewer negative side effects.[ix]

COMPASS Pathways published results in November 2021 of a study showing that a single 25mg dose of psilocybin produces a significant reduction in severity of depression symptoms.[x]

Researchers at the University of British Colombia, in a study published in November 2021, found that adults who microdose psychedelics are slightly less symptomatic of anxiety and depression than their peers who do not microdose.

In July 2021, researchers at Yale University discovered that a single dose of psilocybin given to mice produced a sustained 10% increase in neuronal connections.[xi]

Moving forward, much more research into the effects of psilocybin on the human brain is needed; and, to that end, the Biden-Harris administration wrote a letter to Congress recommending the reduction of barriers to research on Schedule I drugs.[xii]

[i] Nichols D.E. Psilocybin: From ancient magic to modern medicine. J. Antibiot. 2020;73:679–686. doi: 10.1038/s41429-020-0311-8

[ii] 2021: A Year in Review for the Psychedelics Business, by James Halifax, Psychedlic Spotlight, December 30, 2021.

[iii] Elsey J.W. Psychedelic drug use in healthy individuals: A review of benefits, costs, and implications for drug policy. Drug Sci. Policy Law. 2017;3 doi: 10.1177/2050324517723232.

[iv] James E., Robertshaw T.L., Hoskins M., Sessa B. Psilocybin occasioned mystical-type experiences. Hum. Psychopharmacol. Clin. Exp. 2020;35 doi: 10.1002/hup.2742

[v] Hendricks P.S., Crawford M.S., Cropsey K.L., Copes H., Sweat N.W., Walsh Z., Pavela G. The relationships of classic psychedelic use with criminal behavior in the United States adult population. J. Psychopharmacol. 2018;32:37–48. doi: 10.1177/0269881117735685

[vi] Hendricks P.S., Johnson M.W., Griffiths R.R. Psilocybin, psychological distress, and suicidality. J. Psychopharmacol. 2015;29:1041–1043. doi: 10.1177/0269881115598338.

[vii] Griffiths R.R., Richards W.A., Johnson M.W., McCann U.D., Jesse R. Mystical-type experiences occasioned by psilocybin mediate the attribution of personal meaning and spiritual significance 14 months later. J. Psychopharmacol. 2008;22:621–632. doi: 10.1177/0269881108094300

[viii] Effects of Psilocybin-Assisted Therapy on Major Depressive Disorder: A Randomized Clinical Trial, November 4, 2020, JAMA Psychiatry. 2021;78(5):481-489. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2020.3285

[ix] Trial of Psilocybin versus Escitalopram for Depression, April 15, 2021, N Engl J Med 2021; 384:1402-1411
DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa2032994

[x] COMPASS Pathways Shares Positive Topline Results from Phase 2b COMP360 Study, Press Release, November 9, 2021.

[xi] Psychedelic spurs growth of neyral connections lost in depre4ssion, Bill Hathaway, Yale News, July 5, 2021.

[xii] Biden-⁠Harris Administration Provides Recommendations to Congress on Reducing Illicit Fentanyl-Related Substances, Press Release, September 2, 2021

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