Drug Development, Startups

Magic mushrooms might treat depression? Peter Thiel-backed Compass gets FDA OK to launch Phase IIb trials

For years now, psychedelic scientists have been telling us that tripping on magic mushrooms might “reboot” the brain, clearing out negative thought networks that might contribute to depression. Now, it looks like the FDA is willing to test the theory.

Compass officially got the OK from US regulators to see how patients with depression respond to psilocybin — the active ingredient in hallucinogenic mushrooms. They’re launching a Phase IIb dose-ranging study with 216 patients. The therapy being tested includes the drug itself along with psychological support. They’ve shown promise when combined, Compass says.

The idea here is that psilocybin can “reboot” or “defrag” a patient’s brain. Following a psychedelic trip, there’s an initial disintegration of brain networks followed by a re-integration afterwards. How psilocybin might treat depression is complex, but in essence it seems to be tied to a patient’s perception. In layman’s terms, the drug appears to briefly disable the part of the brain where “the self” talks to itself, perhaps disrupting negative or destructive thought patterns.

A number of small academic studies have suggested that psilocybin therapy can offer both immediate and sustained reductions in depression following a single treatment. Compass has a list of relevant studies on its website. Academics in the space say more research must be done to understand what exactly is happening in the brain during this process.

David Nutt

David Nutt, the former chief drug advisor for the British government and a current scientific advisor to Compass Pathways, says cultural snobbery and burdensome regulations have hampered research in the field of psychedelics for too long.

Studies conducted on psilocybin and LSD in the 50s and 60s showed significant benefits in a range of disorders, such as alcoholism and depression,” he wrote in a recent Metro piece. “Before 1967, the US government had funded 140 studies on the therapeutic value of psychedelics, as described by Dr. Robert Masters and Dr. Jean Houston… But once these psychedelics became a part of music and youth culture, they were banned and research stopped, with little if any consideration for patients.”

Peter Thiel

Founded in 2016 — and backed early on by high-profile Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel (who’s known for making investments in controversial startups) — Compass isn’t alone in looking to psychedelics to treat depression. In fact, there’s been a recent resurgence in the study of drugs like mushrooms and LSD for mental illness. Using psilocybin to treat depression is even the topic of popular mainstream author Michael Pollan’s new book: How to Change Your Mind.

Compass’ latest trial will begin in the United Kingdom later this month. Sites in other countries will join as further regulatory approvals are received. The UK, Canada, and the Netherlands have already given a thumbs up to start the trial.


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