Studying mushrooms to fight depression
It’s normal to feel sad after receiving a diagnosis of early Alzheimer’s disease or mild cognitive impairment (MCI). But that doesn’t mean there’s no hope for the sadness to lift.
A Johns Hopkins University study is testing a potential treatment for these feelings: psilocybin, a psychoactive substance found in mushrooms.
“For many people who get a diagnosis of early stage Alzheimer’s or MCI, it can be a very jarring and unpleasant experience,” said Albert Garcia-Romeu, Ph.D., one of the principal investigators of the ongoing study. “A lot of those folks end up with some depressed mood.”
In fact, up to 40% of people with Alzheimer’s experience significant depression, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Symptoms include self-induced social isolation, sleep and eating disruption, agitation, fatigue and suicidal thoughts.
“It takes a toll on quality of life,” Garcia-Romeu said.
In an open-label pilot study (one without placebos or control groups), Garcia-Romeu and Paul B. Rosenberg, M.D., will test psilocybin’s effect on depression in such individuals.
They’re looking for people of all ages with some level of depressed mood (which doesn’t require an official diagnosis by psychologist or psychiatrist), plus a diagnosis of early Alzheimer’s or MCI.
Volunteers will come to the Bayview Medical Center, 4940 Eastern Ave., Baltimore, for 15 visits over six months. After two screening days to assess eligibility for the study, they will start weekly counseling sessions.
At weeks four and six, they will receive two doses of psilocybin. To monitor its effects, volunteers must stay the entire day, with counseling meetings before and after the dosage session.
The drug is administered only during the second month. “Everything after that is a follow up, so we can see if it has made any lasting changes,” Garcia-Romeu said.
A potentially multi-purpose drug
Study investigators say the drug isn’t new.
“Our lab has been working with psilocybin for the last 20 years, and we found that it has a lot of benefits,” Garcia-Romeu said.
In 2014, Garcia-Romeu found that it had the potential to help cigarette smokers quit. Additionally, in a 2011 study, the drug decreased anxiety and depression in people with a recent cancer diagnosis, as reported in JAMA Psychiatry.
Researchers are still trying to determine whether it might also produce cognitive enhancement. Psilocybin has only been tested for this purpose on rats and monkeys, who have demonstrated improved memory and learning processes.
While improved cognition is not the main goal of the current study, the researchers will be monitoring those effects as well.
“We are curious to see if that translates to improvements in memory and cognitive function in people who are starting to have these symptoms,” Garcia-Romeu said.
All participants will receive free counseling throughout the study. Parking expenses will be reimbursed.
To learn more about the clinical trial, or to see if you qualify, visit hopkinspsychedelic.org/alzheimers or call the Bayview Medical Center at (410) 550-0100.