September 1, 2022

By Courtney Wise

Good morning, MindSite News readers. In this issue, find out about a study in which two doses of psilocybin (and talk therapy) dramatically reduced heavy drinking. Plus, how sleep, light and circadian rhythms offer new hope for depression, along with a novel study about microbes in saliva that may help identify a constitutional predisposition toward depression and suggest new treatments.


Small study finds big benefits in using magic mushrooms to treat alcohol abuse

Just two doses in total of psilocybin (aka magic mushrooms) paired with months of psychotherapy dramatically reduced heavy drinking among participants in a small study, the New York Times reports. This study is among the latest in a trove of recent research into the benefits of using hallucinogens to treat depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health problems.

All 93 participants in the alcohol use disorder trial attended 12 therapy sessions that began several weeks before they got their first dose and continued after the second. Almost half of those who received psilocybin had stopped drinking entirely by the end of the eight-month trial, compared with about a quarter of participants given a placebo, according to research findings published in JAMA Psychiatry. Put another way, heavy drinking days decreased 83% in the intervention group vs. 51% in the control group. 

No serious side effects were reported, but the study did have one notable limitation: After each pill-swallowing session, which included eight hours of monitoring, nearly all patients as well as therapists involved in the gold standard double-blind randomized trial successfully guessed whether the pill contained psilocybin or a placebo.“So biased expectancies could have influenced results,” the authors wrote, adding that “this issue remains a challenge for clinical research on psychedelics.”

On August 24, the same day the JAMA Psychiatry study was published online, another group of researchers reported quantifying a key risk for later alcohol problems: Five or more days of heavy drinking ─ defined by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism as at least 5 drinks for healthy men up to age 65 or 4 drinks for adult women and healthy men over 65 ─ during a 3-month period raises the likelihood that a person will develop a severe alcohol use disorder, according to research findings published in Addiction. Knowing the 5-day predictive threshold could help primary care physicians identify patients at risk, the study’s senior author said in a story by Kaiser Permanente, whose researchers analyzed 139,000 records of adult patients in northern California.


MindSite News, WETA and Ken Burns present a FREE live back-to-school event: A Conversation About Youth Mental Health and the Making of Hiding in Plain Sight

THURSDAY, September 8th at 4:00pm PST | 7:00pm EST

Meet Makalynn, a young woman featured in Hiding in Plain Sight. In the film, Makalynn talks about how, after years of extreme behavior, she was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder and accepted her need for medication to treat it.

Watch Makalynn’s clip on Twitter HERE


Circadian rhythm control as a potential treatment for depression

via Twitter

Can resetting the body clock help with depression?” That’s the headline of a story in Nature Outlook: Depression, a supplement that we highlighted in Monday’s newsletter, which examines how changes in night-day/sleep-wake cycles affect mood and can cause mental health problems. Night shift workers who develop anxiety or depression are one example, but modern life is disruptive to our circadian clocks in many other ways. 

“This is an ancient mechanism in our brains and our bodies that evolved at the very beginning of life on Earth, and now we have the ability to have electric lights and to fly across time zones and work late at night,” says Colleen McClung, a chronobiologist at the University of Pittsburgh. “And our biology has not caught up to that at all.” Nonetheless, biologists and other scientists are moving forward.

Links between circadian rhythm interference and depression have been known for decades, although cause-and-effect relationships have been hard to nail down. As they become clearer, however, non-pharmacological therapies to modulate the rhythmic hormone changes that make you sleepy and help you wake up (sometimes called chronotherapeutics) are being investigated as treatments for depression.

And then there’s blue light. The circadian system responds most strongly to wavelengths of around 480 nanometers (emitted by computer and smartphone screens), and technology can create light that appears normal but excludes those wavelengths. But according to some researchers, some changes to get your circadian rhythms on track may be as simple as getting outside in the morning, eating meals at regular hours and limiting blue light in the evening in the hours before bed.


Our summer fundraising campaign continues. As you read our newsletter today, please consider making a gift to support it. The work you see here and in our original reporting requires skill and time, but it can help hold powerful institutions accountable and make the case for new approaches.


In other news…

Possible evidence of suicidal thinking can be detected in saliva, according to the nonprofit news site StudyFinds. In what may be the first research of its type, a study of nearly 500 University of Florida students, published in Nature.com’s Scientific Reports, found some key differences in the bacterial composition of saliva among students who reported having suicidal ideation within the past two weeks vs. those who hadn’t, even after controlling for sleep and diet.

“Accumulating evidence supports the view that depression is an inflammatory disease,” the scientists wrote, noting that studies suggest diet plays a role in depression and influences the microbiome. “Understanding how [some] bacteria promote inflammation may give mechanistic insight” into a constitutional predispostion toward depression and possible treatments for it, the study concluded.

“I’m CA’s Acting Surgeon General. Today, I’d like to publicly share my journey with bipolar disorder. Stigma festers in the dark and scatters in the light. By speaking out, I hope to help dispel stigma. To help anyone struggling know they’re not alone — and to have hope.” So begins a recent tweet from California Actiging Surgeon General Devika Bhushan, who shared her story yesterday in the San Jose Mercury Journal and in a video on Twitter.

Dr. Devika Bhushan

If you or someone you know is in crisis or experiencing suicidal thoughts, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline and connect in English or Spanish. If you’re a veteran press 1. If you’re deaf or hard of hearing dial 711, then 988. Services are free and available 24/7.


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Don Sapatkin

Don Sapatkin is an independent journalist who reports on science and health care. His primary focus for nearly two decades has been public health, especially policy, access to care, health disparities...