Studies Find Psilocybin-Assisted Therapy Helped Decrease Symptoms of Major Depressive Disorder

Psilocybin, the chemical that gives some mushrooms their “magic” seems to decrease the symptoms of some people with major depressive disorder.

Two studies, one conducted at the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research (for ease of reference, study 1) and one conducted at Imperial College London (study 2), show promising results for the efficacy of psilocybin as a treatment for depression. 

In the 1960s there was much research being done on the use of psychedelics in a medical setting. However, once those drugs started being used recreationally, the Controlled Substances Act of 1971 made psilocybin (and other drugs such as LSD) Schedule 1, meaning they could not be used for research. The chart below shows the dip in studies being done on psilocybin during the 1970s until very recently.

Chart depicting the number of times “psilocybin” was mentioned on PubMed every two years since 1958 until the present.

The recent spike in studies is due to places such as the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, which was founded in 2019. Places such as the Center are necessary for advancing our understanding of these substances which have great potential for healing.

According to Dr. Albert Garcia-Romeu, a researcher at the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, “about one-third of patients do not respond to other treatments.” Treatments such as antidepressants or regular talk therapy.

Psilocybin-assisted therapy was not the first option for anyone in these studies. They had all tried other treatment options and saw very little to no benefit. For them, it’s either stay depressed their whole lives or try psilocybin-assisted therapy. Some participants of these studies saw little to no benefit, however, for the most part, the participants of these studies benefited from the psilocybin-assisted therapy, which is a good sign.

Many people have used psychedelic substances recreationally. Some may have traveled in order to take part in religious and/or spiritual ceremonies involving psychedelics. However, very few people have experienced psychedelics the way the participants of these studies do.

First of all, the enrollment process of these studies is selective and rigorous. 870 people applied to participate in study 1, but only 27 were enrolled. Reasons for exclusion include not living within commuting distance, not meeting MRI criteria, having a or a relative with a complicating disorder, and currently being on an antidepressant. According to Dr. Albert Garcia-Romeu, a researcher at the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, “people who are currently on antidepressants will not have the same type of benefit”

Another important factor is the participant’s GRID-HAMD score. GRID-HAMD is short for the GRID-Hamilton Depression Rating Scale and it is used to determine the severity of one’s depression. In both studies participants needed at least a 17 in order to be considered, so all participants had moderate to severe depression. It should also be noted that study 2 required participants to have tried at least two other antidepressant medications without response. 

Second, there was a preparation process participants undergo before they were given the psilocybin. According to Dr. Garcia-Romeu, it is important to build “a solid working relationship” with the participants before the administration sessions. “We usually spend at least a month doing different kinds of preparatory sessions.”

It is essential that the participants feel comfortable with the researchers in the room with them because there are certain risks to taking psilocybin, the most famous one being the “bad trip”. The effects of psilocybin are very dependent on the person’s “set” and “setting”.

The term “set” refers to the mindset of the person leading up to and during the experience. Having a bad set can easily lead to an unpleasant experience, so researchers need to ensure participants are prepared. 

The other term “setting”, refers to the environment in which the psilocybin is taken. Taking psilocybin in an uncomfortable or inappropriate setting could lead to a bad trip. Again, researchers must prepare and inform the participants and make sure they will be comfortable during the administration sessions.

A look at an administration session from study 1

Lastly, the administration sessions themselves are designed so that the participants will have the best possible experience. Participants were given a blindfold so that they do not focus on any visual distortions they might have had because they were encouraged to focus on themselves and embrace any feelings evoked by the psilocybin. There are also two trained professionals in the room in order to provide support if a participant is feeling overwhelmed.

Interestingly, in both studies, participants were encouraged to wear headphones and each study had a specific playlist that played throughout the session. According to Dr. Garcia-Romeu, the playlist was organized in a way that “helps people go from the gentler phase to the more emotional peak phase.”

Both studies had two administration sessions as well as follow up sessions. The follow-up sessions were important in order to solidify any realizations that were made during the sessions. Dr. Garcia-Romeu compared it to going to the gym, “you can’t just go to the gym once.”

The results of both studies were fairly positive, although the results of each study were analyzed in different ways. Study 1 had participants take the GRID-HAMD rating test twice more after their sessions in order to see a quantifiable change in participants’ depression. Study 2 analyzed how participants felt during the sessions as well as answers to questions in the follow-up sessions, in a more qualitative approach.

A graph from study 1 showing the decrease in average GRID-HAMD score

The graph above shows that “psilocybin therapy led to a statistically significant and very large reduction in depression symptoms” said Alan Davis, another researcher at the Center of Psychedelic and Consciousness Research and one of the leading authors of the study, in a presentation he gave about the study.

In either case, both studies showed that psilocybin is capable of helping people with major depressive disorder when antidepressants can not. This might be due to a phenomenon dubbed “quantum change”.

Dr. Garcia-Romeu described quantum change as a sort of “aha moment” in which, under the influence of the psilocybin, participants are able to make some profound realizations about whatever it is they were seeking to gain from the experience.

While some people were able to gain from their experience, not everyone did. These studies show that psilocybin can be a very effective treatment for major depressive disorder, but they also show that for some people, it may not be. 

It is important to remember that these studies are being done on 20 or so people at a time. A very small percentage of the major depressive population. It should also be noted that in both studies, most of the participants were white. According to Dr. Garcia-Romeu, there is a “long history of taking advantage of marginalized people” within big medicine. It is not necessarily that minorities are being actively excluded from these trials, but they are less likely to apply due to a large mistrust of the American health care system. 

Either way, while these studies are promising, in order for psilocybin to be taken more seriously as a treatment for major depressive disorder, larger and more diverse studies need to be done. 

For a collective pandemic response, we need to challenge disinformation

The U.S. presidential election quantified how divided Americans are in political ideology and suggests an incredible need to repair public distrust in credible media sources and combat disinformation.

As of today, The New York Times reports over 77.7 million people voted for Joe Biden, while over 72.4 million people voted for Donald Trump. In 93% of 376 counties with the highest number of new COVID-19 cases per capita, the majority voted for Trump, according to an Associated Press analysis.

Joe Biden as the president-elect presents a future of more rigorous action from the federal government on universal social issues like the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change. Biden has already named members of his COVID-19 task force, composed of well-respected and experienced health professionals, as reported by STAT.

But even with a president-elect who is prepared to work with health officials and scientists, the question remains of how exactly to convince anti-maskers and climate change deniers to be on board with some form of mass societal change to address the pandemic and climate change head-on.

Already, many Americans are highly individualistic in their way of thinking. A collective mindset is less of a priority for some, yet it has shown to be necessary for a society to contain a virus that spreads from person-to-person, especially one that depends on people wearing face masks and socially distancing as key transmission prevention guidelines.

New York Times technology correspondent Adam Satariano writes that the spread of election misinformation may be because people who lean politically right rely more on right-wing media outlets. I would argue that most of the “election misinformation” is mostly disinformation, as an intentional push from the Trump administration to spread false information through claims of illegal ballots and widespread voter fraud when there is no credible evidence of such.

I don’t believe there are actually over 72.4 million Americans who completely deny that COVID-19 or climate change exist. The way people vote is not a monolithic definition of their identity. But that number of Trump voters indicates nearly half of Americans who voted don’t think those two seemingly universal issues are top priorities in our country.

I suspect that most people live in their own political bubbles and in turn, they will stick to the same media sources that report news that caters to those political leanings. Another issue is trying to stop disinformation on social media when there is a lack of regulation for disinformation from large social media platforms themselves.

The problem may not be that people are losing trust in the media overall. I believe that people only trust in media sources that match their political leanings. Right-leaning people may distrust media that they perceive to be politically left-polarized for reporting on factual information.

If some media sources continue spreading misinformation and disinformation, particularly in regard to the pandemic, it would continue to greenlight how people behave in public settings, including posing a greater health risk to others with lack of face masks or social distancing. At least, a start to challenging disinformation would be for news media sources who have massive followings to hold themselves accountable to a journalistic and ethical standard of reporting news that is fact-based, rather than continuing to give a platform to unsubstantiated claims or misleading information that their audience wants to hear. Unfortunately, that may be easier said than done.

Dense chapters doesn’t stop an interesting read about the workings of the world and universe

Skeptic » Lectures » Dr. Lisa Randall — Dark Matter and ...

There is a certain joy to finishing a book that you’ve been trying to work your way through for five years. For me, that joy most recently came from getting to the far side of Lisa Randall’s “Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs.”

While it’s not fair to say that it took me five years to read the book because it’s so dense — I had plenty of other projects to do, commitments to honor, and books to read in addition to educating myself on the basics of particle physics and mass extinctions — it is fair to say that sections of the book get very dense.

Maybe it’s par for the course when reading a book about something as mysterious to the average layperson as dark matter is, but the sections that focused most strongly on particle physics and astrophysics often felt like they cared more about the plain science than the action of communicating the facts to the reader. This is a flaw in a book designed for consumption by the average reader rather than a scientist.

I also find myself wondering about the premise of the book. Focused on the same information and research that build up to Randall’s 2014 paper “Dark Matter as a Trigger for Periodic Comet Impacts”, the book sets the reader up to understand her proposition that a disk of dark matter that is overlaid on the disk of the Milky Way regularly pulls comets from distant reaches of the Solar System out of their normal paths in a way that they’re more likely to hit Earth. She further proposes that the comet that killed the dinosaur was one such impacted celestial body.

Of the 370 pages, devoted to these topics, only 20 explain the actual research and theory she’s proposing. The bulk of the book is the required set up, and while the theory serves as the linchpin that lets information about the physics behind dark matter coexist in a bound set of pages with information on the mass extinctions that have faced life on Earth, I feel like I got more out of everything else than the actual theory at the end.

But at the end of the day, I don’t regret any of the time I put into it, chunks of the book I especially enjoyed, and I came out on the far side with knowledge I didn’t have before. I suppose that makes it all worthwhile.

The US is likely to stay in the Paris Agreement, but Trump’s climate actions will have an effect

On November 4, while the outcome of the presidential election was still undecided, Donald Trump officially began the year-long process that would take the United States out of the Paris Climate Accords. This makes the United States only one of three nations that haven’t ratified the agreement, which aims to curb carbon emissions worldwide. But with Joe Biden, who has promised to rejoin the accords set to assume the presidency in January, this move will have little practical effect. However, it shows perfectly how politicized the topic of climate change has become in this country.

A study conducted by the Pew Research Center found that less than half of Americans think that the earth is warming because of climate change. Furthermore, only 27% of Americans think that there is a scientific consensus in regards to climate change, and only 39% think that climate scientists can be trusted to give accurate information about climate change. This was a very divisive issue between Democrats and Republicans — for example, 79% of liberal Democrats believe in human-caused climate change compared to 15% of Republicans.

The end result of this is that American politicians are likely to continue with stunts like pulling out of the Paris Agreement, even when these actions are unlikely to change anything in regards to climate policy. With so little trust in the actions of climate scientists, it can be advantageous for politicians like Donald Trump to make big anti-climate change moves to bolster trust in his own party instead of climate scientists. So while the US is unlikely to fully pull out of the Paris Agreement, these moves are likely to muddy the waters around the issue and contribute to the polarization around this issue in the US.

The more that politicians opposed to climate policy can make this issue a political fight between two parties as opposed to a scientific problem, the easier it becomes to win people to their side. And while Joe Biden is occupied undoing the work of his predecessor, he can’t begin creating his own climate policy without getting entrenched in a partisan fight.

Rewriting our past and planning for our future

Recent news coverage that give us insight into humanity and life on Earth long ago, and the future of life and humanity’s impact in space

Earth in Space
“Earth” by kristian fagerström is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

In just the past few days a variety of major archaeological and astronomical news has broken. Three million year old fossils from New Zealand may be rewriting a well established and believed history of seal evolution, and an extinct human ancestor shows how one species may be favored for a while, before the world changes and ushers them out. 

In far northern latitudes, the past continues to be revealed. A lake underneath a mile of ice in Greenland potentially revealing past ice-sheet behaviors crucial to predicting future behaviors, and a Viking-age ship burial in Norway which, when explored further may give new insights into Scandanavian living a millennium ago. 

Looking to the future of life and humanities impact beyond Earth, two major articles have been published. A common plot for movies and TV shows like that of “Avatar” (2009) and “The 100”(2014-2020), the reality of mining for minerals in space looks to be reliant less on complicated machinery and more on bacteria extracting the minerals, with shockingly high efficiency. Digging even further into questions speculative fiction has explored for ages, NASA investigates planets which may show a possibility of hosting some form of life right in our solar system.

Below is a collection of semi-chronologically organized articles to read if you feel the desire to feel a bit existential or simply in awe of life. Likely both will happen, honestly. Enjoy. 

The Past

Scientists thought these seals evolved in the north. 3-million-year-old fossils from New Zealand suggest otherwise

Primeval Greenland lake found buried beneath a mile-thick slab of ice

This Extinct Human Ancestor Evolved to Cope With Climate Change, But Didn’t Survive

Archaeologists Discover Viking Age Ship Burial in Norway

The Future

ISS Experiment Reveals How We Could Mine Rocks in Space With 400% Efficiency

Life in Our Solar System? Meet the Neighbors

Trees that stick out at Northeastern

Walking through Centennial Common a few weeks ago, I stumbled into a spiky ball about the size of a plum. Looking around, I saw that the ground was littered with them, and looking up, I realized they were falling out of a tree. These spiky balls were the seed pods of chestnuts! This particular tree is a Chinese Chestnut, I found from looking at a tree identification guide online — the American chestnut tree, once a defining feature of the Northeast, has since become functionally extinct due to a blight fungus, and chestnuts in the U.S. are now all imported. 

A quick look around Centennial shows that there are many different kinds of trees, and something I had never noticed: many have a small silver plate at the base of their trunk, denoting the name, family and location of the tree, as well as the year it was planted. This is because Northeastern is a Level II accredited arboretum, with 100 species of trees over 11 acres across campus that are professionally managed. All of the trees that are part of the arboretum can be found in the Northeastern Tree Inventory.

Just in Centennial Common, there are over a dozen different species of trees, ranging from ones common to the Northeast like red maple and crabapple to imported beauties like the golden raintree and Korean evodia. Perhaps the most interesting is the lacebark elm, which is native to eastern Asia and has a wonderfully unique bark pattern. 

Next time you’re walking through campus and a tree catches your eye, stop to see if there is a silver plaque at the base to find out what it is. If not, you can always figure it out by identifying its leaves, bark, and fruit. There are plenty of handy guides online, like this one from the Arbor Day Foundation. Happy fall!

Hurricanes may stay stronger for longer, new research suggests

By Kelly Thomas

The world has already begun to witness the likely effects of climate change on hurricanes — stronger, slower storms that intensify more rapidly and produce greater rainfall.

New research suggests this destruction could cover even more ground.

Warming oceans are creating hurricanes that take longer to weaken over land, according to a study published Wednesday in Nature by researchers at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University. As a result, they say “the destructive power of hurricanes will extend progressively farther inland.”

Hurricanes typically weaken as they make landfall and separate from the oceanic moisture that fuels their growth — a process that has historically buffered non-coastal areas from the worst of hurricane-related hazards like severe wind and rainfall.

However, storms are now starting to retain their strength even when cut off from their source of power.

By studying North Atlantic hurricanes from 1967 to 2018, researchers Lin Li and Pinaki Chakraborty found that hurricane intensity one day after landfall today is double what it was 50 years ago. 

They also concluded that increased ocean surface temperatures will provide storms with a larger supply of moisture to draw from as they continue travelling across land, ultimately increasing their capacity for destruction.

The study notes two other factors that may slow the rate at which hurricanes weaken —  shifts in storm speed and paths.

Translation speed — the speed at which hurricanes travel — is decreasing as the planet warms, resulting in more intense storms. 

Global warming has also moved the tracks of North Atlantic hurricanes eastward, another trend that is correlated with greater intensity.

The researchers point to their findings as justification for an increase in hurricane-related economic losses in recent years as well as a call for non-coastal areas to increase their hurricane preparation as the planet continues to warm.

Microbes may Play a Role in our Exploration of the Universe

As part of an experiment called BioRock, there are three different types of microbes currently aboard the ISS slowly eating away at rocks in order to extract useful metals from them.

The practice of biomining is already used here on Earth for metals such as copper and gold, but before biomining can take place in space scientists must determine how different strengths of gravity affect how the microbes grow and extract metals.

Aboard the ISS, some microbes experience microgravity which is what they would feel if they were to be used on an asteroid. Other microbes experience simulated Martian gravity with the hope that they can someday be used on Mars.

If humans ever want to settle on the Moon, Mars, or any other celestial body, they will most likely have to extract materials from that body rather than bring them from Earth. Microbes could do the work of extracting materials or making soil for us while we focus on more important and complex duties.

One of the microbes, S. desiccabilis, handled microgravity rather well, however, the other two did not. Nevertheless, there is another experiment called BioAsteroid set to launch in December. Humans are still years away from establishing a serious presence on another celestial body, so we have the opportunity to perfect our microbes in the meantime.

When science communication goes viral

This astronomer is spreading little-known knowledge through animations on social media.

By Maria Lovato

Earth and Jupiter to scale | James O’Donoghue @physicsJ

When Dr. James O’Donoghue created a simple animation showing Saturn losing its rings in order to explain the concept to a journalist, he didn’t expect an animation that only took a weekend of free time to make to end up leading the article on the New York Times website.

O’Donoghue, a planetary astronomer at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and formerly at NASA, had been making animations just for fun and to explain basic-level astronomy to friends and family. But after the positive impact of the Saturn animation, he realized that there was a gap in visual explainers of already-existing science topics.

“It’s actually like an outlet for me to share one of my passions … It’s a fun way to communicate, and I didn’t expect it to go this far, to be honest,” O’Donoghue said in a phone interview.

Now, O’Donoghue shares his animations on YouTube and Twitter to his more than 90,000 followers. He targets his content to reach everyday people, and many of his animations have been viewed millions of times. He’s been retweeted by Elon Musk and his animations have appeared in publications like Business Insider and the New York Times.

“I think my target audience is everyone,” O’Donoghue said. “I’ve always been trying to get the people that are not as engaged into it with some kind of hook. And so, if people are scrolling down their feed and there’s some video, usually people stop.”

O’Donoghue believes that most scientists should be doing some kind of science communication. He points out that in many cases, the public is paying for scientific research through taxes. And, O’Donoghue said, important astronomy topics are not usually taught in primary and secondary school. He creates animations that he thinks will fill this information void, and interacts with his audience on Twitter to create animations that answer questions people have.

Putting out animations on social media is a more effective way to reach people than other, more traditional forms of outreach, O’Donoghue said. And he found that working to explain science that isn’t new allows him to avoid the typical PR avenues that scientists usually have to go through to disseminate their work.

“Normally, with any kind of animation or illustration, when you do a science press release, you really have to wrestle with your department or university or agency,” O’Donoghue said. “So, I just decided to do it myself.”

CBDCs: A New Type of Currency

Earlier this week, Lebanon announced its plan to introduce a new digital currency in 2021. This feels natural to anyone following the rise of cryptocurrencies in recent years, starting with Bitcoin’s explosion in popularity in 2017. But Lebanon isn’t simply developing a new incarnation of Bitcoin as their currency. Like China, Sweden, the UK, and several other countries, Lebanon is working to create a central bank digital currency, or CBDC.

Unlike Bitcoin, Ethereum, and other cryptocurrencies, CBDCs are a form of digital currency fully backed by the country’s government and considered legal tender. Also unlike Bitcoin, the value of CBDCs are relatively stable. While the value of Bitcoin may fluctuate drastically over the period of an hour, day, or year, the value of a government-issued CBDC is fairly constant, much like how dollar bills have an almost constant value over time. This stability is key to any currency’s widespread use – if merchants, bankers, and investors cannot depend on the currency they receive to maintain its value, then they will use another more stable currency instead.

Building a CBDC is more complex than simply removing cash from circulation and switching to electronic banking as we know it today. Traditional banking systems ultimately rely on actual money being transferred, meaning that the number that appears in your bank account is a representation of the actual money you own. Under a completely digital currency, the number in your bank account is the actual money you own, and losing access to your bank account means losing that money forever.

CBDCs have distinct advantages over traditional currencies, particularly that precise analysis of the money flow can be utilized to combat money laundering and crime. More importantly for countries like Lebanon, a CBDC would boost trust in the governmental banking system. Lebanon has very little gold reserves, and instead of backing a traditional currency with gold, using a CBDC would enable the Lebanese government to sell the gold in foreign markets in the event of a monetary crisis.