Toronto's CAMH gets 1st federal grant to study magic mushrooms as treatment for depression

Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) says it has received the first-ever federal grant to study whether the active component in 'magic' mushrooms can be used to treat depression without the psychedelic effects.

Study to explore if psilocybin can alleviate depression without psychedelic side effects

Samples of mushrooms and a small pill capsule.
Psilocybin can be extracted from psychedelic mushrooms and then processed into pills. (Camille Vernet/Radio-Canada)

Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) says it has received the first-ever federal grant to study whether the active component in 'magic' mushrooms can be used to treat depression without the psychedelic effects.

Psilocybin is the chemical compound in magic mushrooms that induces a so-called 'trip.' Researchers at CAMH are going to explore if those psychoactive effects are necessary for the compound to alleviate treatment-resistant depression in adults.

"There has been a growing interest and body of knowledge regarding the use of psychedelic drugs for the treatment of mental illness and addictions," said Dr. Ishrat Husain, lead investigator of the upcoming study, in a news release.

Husain noted that clinical trials suggest psilocybin, combined with intensive psychotherapy, can produce "sustained antidepressant effects" in those living with severe depression.

LISTEN | Dr. Ishrat Husain and a psilocybin advocate discuss its potential as a treatment:

Carole Dagher is a patient at the Center for Addiction and Mental Health, who's become an advocate for psychedelics as a way to treat depression. Dr. Ishrat Husain is an associate professor of psychiatry and the head of the clinical trial unit at CAMH.

One issue, though, is that because it comes with psychoactive side effects, users need "time intensive and costly" support during the treatment, Husain said. But if the researchers at CAMH find psilocybin can still help people suffering from depression without the "trip," then it would make the treatment far more practical.

The study will include 60 adults who have been living with depression for at least three years and haven't responded to alternative forms of treatment. A random third of those participants will get a full dose of psilocybin plus a blocker that will stop the drug's psychedelic effects. Another 20 will get psilocybin and a placebo, while the third group will be given a placebo and the blocker. 

All of the participants will also receive 12 hours of psychotherapy "as per current practice in psychedelic research," the news release said.

The hope is the research will serve as a foundation for further clinical exploration of psilocybin as a treatment for depression without the need for psychotherapy.

CAMH's study is being funded by the Canadian Institute for Health Research. The grant was awarded this month and, according to the hospital, is the first time the federal government has provided money for a study of this type.

Close-up of a person pouring mushrooms into a zip-top bag.
CAMH previously took part in a global study that found psilocybin, the active component in magic mushrooms, could be an effective way to treat depression in some patients. (Richard Vogel/The Associated Press)

It comes amid a growing wave of interest globally in potentially using psychedelics like psilocybin, ketamine, MDMA (the active ingredient in ecstasy) and LSD to treat mental illnesses, as well as a host of other medical conditions. 

In its news release, CAMH stressed the need for well-designed clinical trials in pushing this kind of research forward, as approvals from federal authorities in Canada have so far been been limited.

In 2020, Health Canada granted permission to 16 health professionals to use psilocybin themselves to help develop therapies for future use.

Earlier this year, though, the federal health minister rejected applications for more than 100 health-care practitioners — including doctors, psychologists, clinical counsellors, social workers and nurses — to use psychedelic drugs as part of psychotherapy treatments.

Meanwhile, Health Canada suspended a study into MDMA-assisted psychotherapy this summer over patient safety concerns.


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