Scientists say the psychedelic ingredient in the mushrooms could prove a “game changer” in tackling the eating disorder, and are preparing to launch a trial this year.
There is currently no effective medication for the condition, which affects at least 100,000 in the UK. Depression often accompanies the illness, making the mood shift required to treat it even more difficult.
Traditional anti-depressants are designed to boost serotonin – the chemical in the brain that affects mood and happiness. But the most severely affected anorexia patients have such low levels of serotonin that antidepressants are ineffective.
It is believed the psilocybin, the active compound that makes magic mushrooms “magic”, will alter pathways in the brain that affect mood and make patients more amenable to psychological treatment.
King’s College Londonwill give the treatment in tablet form to 60 UK patients.
Dr Guy Goodwin, medical director of Compass Pathways, an international mental healthcare drug company which developed the synthetic compound and is running the study with Kings, said the trials would take place in a controlled environment at the Maudsley Hospital in South London.
He said: “They will definitely experience the full psychedelic experience that casual users get. We believe the mood altering properties of psilocybin will have a positive effect on their mental state in relation to anorexia.”
The volunteers will be briefed on what they are likely to experience. They will remain under observation for around six to eight hours to make sure the magic mushroom effect wears off.
Dr Hubertus Himmerich, a leading expert in eating disorders at King’s College London and co-lead of the study said: “There is no indication that traditional psychiatric medications have the capability to improve the main psychological symptoms of anorexia.
“Psilocybin, however, might be a game changer, because it could have the potential to shift thinking patterns and behaviour in those who have had anorexia for a long time.”
Janet Treasure, Professor of Adult Psychiatry at King’s College, said: “Currently there are no drug treatments for anorexia nervosa and psychological treatments are less effective in people with comorbid depression and a long duration of illness.
“Based on the results from early studies of psilocybin it is important that we now investigate the possibility that this could be a new treatment for anorexia nervosa.”
A team at the University of California has already carried out a safety trial on a small group of patients that showed higher and lower doses of the drug were safe and did not harm volunteers. Some patients reported positive effects.
Professor Walter Kaye, who led this trial, said: “Patients often hate their body shape and believe they are fat. Some of the patients in our trial reported a different, positive view of their body image. The early results offer hope that this treatment could be a breakthrough.”
Psilocybin is already being used in trials to treat post-traumatic stress disorder and treatment resistant depression.
Experts think it could also help treat other eating disorders such as bulimia which affects 700,000 people in the UK.
Many anorexics have “comorbidities” such as anxiety, panic attacks and obsessive-compulsive disorders which could also be helped by psilocybin.