Could Psychedelics Help Treat Depression?

11:54 minutes

a pile of about a dozen mushrooms with gumdrop shaped heads and thing long curvy stalks on a white background
Dried hallucinogenic magic mushrooms like contain psilocybin. Credit: Shutterstock

Depression is often treatable with medication, therapy, or a combination of the two. But some 30% of patients don’t respond well to existing medications—and may try multiple antidepressant drugs with little or no improvement. 

This week, researchers reported that a new trial suggests psychedelics may be an effective therapy for treatment-resistant depression. A randomized, controlled, double-blind trial found that people with treatment-resistant depression who were given 25 milligrams of psilocybin, the psychedelic component of magic mushrooms, had a significant decrease in depressive symptoms. The treatment didn’t work for everyone, however, and more research needs to be done before the finding can move to clinical use.

Sabrina Imber, a science fellow at the New York Times, joins Ira to talk about the trial and other stories from the week in science—including a new timeline for the planned Artemis missions to the moon, screaming bees, and a very wayward eagle.

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Segment Guests

Sabrina Imbler

Sabrina Imbler is a Science Fellow at the New York Times in New York, New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, a close look at the COP26 climate summit going on in Scotland, and a talk with the creator of the show “Dopesick.” But first, depression is often treatable with medication, therapy, or a combination of the two. But some 30% of patients don’t respond well to existing medications and may try multiple antidepressant drugs with little or no improvement.

This week, researchers reported that a new trial suggests that psychedelics are a highly effective therapy for treatment resistant depression. Here to talk about that, and other headlines from the week in science is Sabrina Imbler, a science fellow at The New York Times. Welcome back to Science Friday, Sabrina.

SABRINA IMBLER: Hi, Ira. Thanks for having me back.

IRA FLATOW: You’re quite welcome. Let’s start right there. Tell us about this trial, what they were looking at, what they found.

SABRINA IMBLER: Yes, so Olivia Goldhill has the story with STAT News. And the results have just come out from the largest ever study of psilocybin, which is essentially the psychedelic component of magic mushrooms. And this trial was randomized, controlled, and double blind. And it showed that people who have treatment resistant depression, who were given 25 milligrams of psilocybin, had a significant decrease in depressive symptoms compared to people who were given a placebo in the trial. And the trial’s results still have not yet been peer reviewed, so the data still needs to be examined in more detail, but scientists say it’s super promising.

IRA FLATOW: So that’s a really significant number, 30%.

SABRINA IMBLER: Yeah. So 30% of patients who were given the highest dose in the study, which is 25 milligrams, they were in remission three weeks after treatment, compared to just 7.6% in the control group.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. So I know not too long ago, there was research into using ketamine to treat depression. How does it fit in with that?

SABRINA IMBLER: So the effects of psilocybin at three weeks after this single dose of treatment, seem on par with the effects of ketamine at one day. So this suggests the benefits of psilocybin can hold up well over time.

IRA FLATOW: That is good news. Let’s move on to other good news and some bad news in the world of space flight. First, Wednesday there was a successful launch of astronauts en route to the Space Station. But also a revised timeline for a planned trip to the moon, pushing it back a bit. Tell us about that.

SABRINA IMBLER: NASA is pushing back its deadline for returning US astronauts to the moon by at least a year. NASA leaders, in a press conference, they cited a number of delays, including issues over a contract. They said that the timeline set by the Trump administration was too aggressive. They also cited funding and some technical delays. So the original timeline, which planned for a 2020 landing, NASA’s now aiming for sometime in 2025.

And the lunar program, which is called Artemis, will have its first launch in 2022, when NASA will use the Orion capsule and launch system to launch an uncrewed flight test. The second mission will happen in 2024, as a crew loops around the moon. And then, finally, as Artemis III, which is the crewed lunar landing mission.

IRA FLATOW: You know, this is all such a deja vu for those of us old enough to remember the ’60s, all these progressions of space flight. But everybody else is going to be able to live through that again. First you test it out with the uncrewed, then you send people around the moon.

SABRINA IMBLER: Yeah, maybe it feels less special for people who saw it the first time around.


IRA FLATOW: Never, never. No, it was special then, it will be extra special now. Let’s move on to some other good human spaceflight news, and it’s a bit, shall I say, spicy.

SABRINA IMBLER: It is spicy. So things got heated at the International Space Station recently when astronauts feasted on their first space-grown crop of chili peppers.

IRA FLATOW: I see what you did there. That was good. I like that.

SABRINA IMBLER: Thank you. I tried to match the spicy!


Daniel Victor at The New York Times reports that NASA planted 48 pepper seeds on Earth and then send them up to space on a cargo resupply mission. And then, at the International Space Station, astronauts watered and pollinated the flowers in July, and recently had their first harvest of seven mature peppers. And the chili is part of a larger effort to offer astronauts a more gourmet experience in space, which is not traditionally known for its cuisine.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, because I know salsa is like the top condiment now in the US, or close to it. So I guess you want to bring chilies into space. And I’m wondering how hard it is to grow peppers in space. Do you need a special space pepper to do this?

SABRINA IMBLER: Well, it’s very hard to grow any kind of food in space. You don’t have gravity, and you also don’t have natural light, so you need to grow food in a special chamber. But the peppers proved a particular challenge because they take a long time to germinate, and a long time to grow. But you don’t actually need a special space pepper. But the astronauts did choose very carefully. They spent two years picking the perfect pepper– this is a tongue twister.

IRA FLATOW: You qualify for an ounce of them right there.

SABRINA IMBLER: [LAUGHS] — from around two dozen options. And the chili that they settled on hails from Hatch, New Mexico. It has a rating of 2,000 to 4,000 Scoville heat units, which apparently makes it about as spicy as Tabasco sauce.

IRA FLATOW: So is it a pepper that we can grow ourselves, so we could grow it along with the astronauts?

SABRINA IMBLER: We could definitely grow it ourselves. But I think, similar to champagne, if you grow it outside of Hatch, New Mexico, it’s not known as a Hatch chili pepper. It’s just a green chili pepper.

IRA FLATOW: I get the politics of that. Thank you for pointing that out. And they taste– the astronauts like the taste?

SABRINA IMBLER: Yes. One astronaut, Megan McArthur, she ate them on tacos. She had a fajita beef taco with rehydrated tomatoes, artichokes, and these newly grown space peppers. And she called it her best space taco yet, but I don’t really know what the competition looks like in that area.

IRA FLATOW: [LAUGHS] Yes, I’m sure there will be some. Let’s talk about closer to home. You wrote a story this week about screaming bees. Wow! Tell us about that.

SABRINA IMBLER: [LAUGHS] So scientists have described a new acoustic signal that Asian honeybees deploy when their hives are being threatened by giant hornets. And these hornets are fearsome, brutal predators that hunt in packs. And once they approach an Asian honey bee hive, they can eliminate the hive of the workers and its brood in a matter of hours, and the smaller weaker honeybees are left somewhat defenseless.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, because they can really decimate a hive, can’t they?


IRA FLATOW: And so, how do they make this noise?

SABRINA IMBLER: So the Asian honey bees make this scream-like noise not with their mouths, but with their bodies. They lift their abdomen up, they vibrate their wings, and then they just run around. It’s very chaotic, but the result is a noise that sounds a lot like a scream or a shriek. It’s extremely loud and unpredictable. And the scientists call this signal an anti-predator pipe.

IRA FLATOW: Probably chaotic to us, but not to the bees, right? They probably know what’s going on.

SABRINA IMBLER: Yeah. I guess they’re highly organized in comparison to us.


SABRINA IMBLER: The researchers first collected these recordings when they were studying the honeybees practice of smearing feces outside the hives. But one of them just recognized that whenever she passed by a hive that was under attack by these hornets, she would hear this very alarming cry, which is how– it was somewhat of an accidental discovery of this scream. And they collected nearly 30 hours of bee noise, and over the pandemic were just listening and listening, trying to figure out what exactly was happening.

And the discovery came to one researcher at 2:30 AM, after a sleepless night of just listening to this horrible screaming bee noise, when she finally was able to identify this new sound that bees are able to make.

IRA FLATOW: That’s a fantastic discovery. So is this just a warning cry? I mean, what can they do to defend the hive if there are these hornets around?

SABRINA IMBLER: So the scientists don’t know the precise function of this bee scream yet. But the fact that the bees only scream as the hornets draw close to the hive, does suggest that the anti-predator pipe might function as a warning cry or a defensive signal. And the bees do have a few other defenses against the hornets. They do smear feces that they collect from other animals on the edges of the entrance of their hives, which appears to ward off the hornets.

And they can also surround the hornets in a bee ball, which is basically one hornet surrounded by a bunch of bees, and they suffocate and overheat the hornet with the vibration of their wings until the hornet dies. So collective action.

IRA FLATOW: Well, they know how to make heat because during the winter they keep their hives at over 90 degrees while it’s freezing outside. So they know how to do that.

SABRINA IMBLER: Oh, that’s balmy!


IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Let’s talk about other nature news. There’s new research explaining something that I have always wondered about, and that is why pearls are round. And I know their roundness makes them very valuable.

SABRINA IMBLER: Very valuable. Yes, when you think of a pearl, you think of a perfectly spherical gem. But pearls form when a piece of sand or debris gets trapped inside a mollusk, like an oyster or a mussel. And the mollusk forms a pearl by building layers and layers of an iridescent substance called nacre over the grit. But for a long time, scientists did not know how an irregular grain of sand could lead to such consistently spherical pearls.

But as Rachel Crowell reports for Science News, scientists have discovered that oysters actually have a complex mathematical process to produce the perfect pearl. And as oysters build these layers of nacre they correct growth aberrations as the pearl forms, and they can modulate the thickness of the layers to prevent a lopsided pearl. And if a defect arises, the nacre can self-heal with just a few layers to become perfect once again.

IRA FLATOW: And finally, there’s an eagle that’s just a bit off course I understand?

SABRINA IMBLER: Yes. So as Marion Reneau reports for The New York Times, some very confused bird watchers have had their minds boggled after spotting a stellar sea eagle, which is known to live around Asia and Russia, in Eastern Canada, which is around 4,700 miles from home. The bird was first spotted in Alaska in August, and has since flown to Nova Scotia. And no stellar sea eagle has been known to appear near the Atlantic Ocean before. And the bird is hard to miss. It’s an eagle with a Cheeto-orange beak, a 6 to 8-foot wingspan, and this particular eagle has a very distinctive white spot on its left wing.

IRA FLATOW: So this is one eagle that’s really way off course. I mean, it shouldn’t be there and it’s never been spotted before, but people are seeing it over and over again.

SABRINA IMBLER: Yes, and it’s very easy to spot because of its own spot.

IRA FLATOW: Somebody get that eagle a GPS.

SABRINA IMBLER: Yeah, one birder said, it would be like an elephant walking up out of Africa and into Scandinavia.

IRA FLATOW: So this must be driving the birdwatching community bananas a bit.

SABRINA IMBLER: Yes, so bird watchers all across where the eagle has been spotted have been driving sometimes hours to go see this eagle once someone reports it. They are describing it like an avian soap opera. They really don’t know where this eagle is going to go next. It could migrate along with native bald eagles down the coastline. It could wander its way back to its home in Northeastern Asia. It could just live forever in Nova Scotia. They really don’t know what this eagle is going to do, but they are all waiting with bated breath.

IRA FLATOW: This could give a whole different meaning to the phrase “the eagle has landed.”


IRA FLATOW: Thank you, Sabrina, for talking with us today.

SABRINA IMBLER: Thank you so much for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Sabrina Imbler, science fellow at The New York Times. We’re going to take a break, and when we come back, it’s the biggest international gathering for climate change since the last one. What’s going to come out of the last two weeks of negotiations and diplomacy? We report from the COP26 in Glasgow. Stay with us. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios.

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