Federal health agency acknowledges potential medical benefits of psilocybin in new PSA webpage

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Although the new informational page warns readers that psilocybin is still federally illegal, it notes that research into its applications is increasing.

A new webpage apparently posted within the past week by a federal U.S. health agency acknowledges that psilocybin may have medical value, particularly for treating depression, despite its current status as a federally banned Schedule I drug.

The page, “Psilocybin for Mental Health and Addiction: What You Need to Know,” is hosted by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), which is a subdivision of the National Institutes of Health, itself a wing of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The existence of the new webpage was first reported by Marijuana Moment.

Although the new informational page warns readers that psilocybin is still federally illegal, it notes that “Research interest in the potential of psychedelic drugs to treat mental health conditions including depression, anxiety, existential distress in serious medical illnesses, post-traumatic stress disorder, and addiction has been growing.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration already bestowed “breakthrough therapy” status to psilocybin-assisted therapy in 2019 for major depressive disorder and for treatment-resistant depression a year before that, the NCCIH noted in its analysis. It also pointed to local decriminalization statutes approved by voters in Washington, D.C., Oregon, and Colorado.

Overall, however, NCCIH hedged its recommendations and emphasized repeatedly that more study is necessary to properly harness the medical applications of psilocybin.

“Some people take psilocybin in ‘microdoses,’ or very small amounts (e.g., one-tenth or one-twentieth of a typical nonclinical dose), because they believe it will improve mental health symptoms such as depression and stress, increase productivity, or reduce pain,” the NCCIH page notes. “However, it is not clear if microdosing is safe or effective.”

The page also summarizes three other specific areas of medical application for psilocybin that have attracted some scientific trials, including alcohol use disorder, anxiety and depression.

Regarding alcohol use disorder, NCCIH pointed to a 32-week study in 2022 which concluded that psilocybin “may be helpful” for patients with the ailment. But, the subdivision noted, “Most people in the study correctly guessed which therapy they had received, however, and it is not known if the effect from psilocybin lasted longer than 32 weeks.”

On anxiety, NCCIH referenced a survey from 2020 of 117 patients – most of which had terminal cancer – that found “psilocybin combined with psychotherapy may be safe and effective for improving anxiety, depression, and existential distress, as well as quality of life.” But, NCCIH reported that that study “may have been biased.”

With depression, NCCIH reported that “a growing body of research” supports the theory that psilocybin can be an effective treatment and cited three studies, including one from just last year of 215 patients which concluded that “psilocybin treatment combined with psychological support reduced depression symptoms for up to 5 weeks.”

“It is possible that the benefits may last longer than 5 weeks, but there was not enough evidence to be certain,” NCCIH summarized.

In the two other surveys of depression patients, one in 2021 found that psilocybin didn’t perform as well as the antidepressant escitalopram, while another 2023 study found that “single-dose psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy rapidly reduced symptoms of depression within 8 days, with benefits lasting for 6 weeks.”

The NCCIH is supportive of further research into the medical benefits of various psychedelics, the agency asserted, including psilocybin, and suggested toward the end of the page that it could be used to treat migraine headaches, other neuropathic pain, and chronic pain.

But, the agency also warned, “Don’t use psilocybin to postpone seeing a health care provider about a medical or mental health problem.”

“The effects of taking psilocybin are hard to predict and can vary widely from person to person. At certain doses, psychedelic drugs, including psilocybin, can change peoples’ moods, thoughts, and perceptions,” the NCCIH stated.

“For example, people who use psilocybin may report feeling strong emotions, seeing vibrant images, reliving vivid memories, or experiencing perceptual changes such as a sense of timelessness or a dissolving of the ego.”

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