Psilocybin, a ‘magic mushroom’ drug, shows early promise in easing migraines.

Psilocybin, a 'magic mushroom' drug, shows early promise in easing migraines.

Psilocybin: A Potential Breakthrough in Migraine Treatment

Magic Mushrooms

Migraines affect millions of people worldwide, causing intense head pain along with nausea, visual disturbances, and sensitivity to light and sound. Although there are prescription medications available to manage migraines, they don’t work for everyone, leading researchers to explore alternative treatments. One potential breakthrough that is gaining renewed interest is the use of psilocybin, the active ingredient in “magic” mushrooms.

A Brief History of Psilocybin and Medical Research

Psilocybin mushrooms have been used recreationally as hallucinogens for many years, but their psychedelic effects also have therapeutic potential. Medical research into psychedelics like psilocybin and LSD started in the 1950s but was largely halted due to widespread recreational use in the 1960s “counterculture.” Recently, however, there has been a resurgence of interest in these substances as medical therapies.

Scientists from esteemed institutions such as Johns Hopkins University, New York University, and the University of California have been investigating the use of psilocybin for conditions like depression, addiction, and eating disorders. While the majority of research has focused on psychiatric disorders, there are also promising findings concerning cluster headaches and migraines.

The Promise of Psilocybin for Migraine Treatment

In a recent research review published in the journal Current Pain and Headache Reports, Dr. Emmanuelle Schindler, an assistant professor of neurology at Yale School of Medicine, discusses the current state of research on psilocybin for migraines.

Dr. Schindler conducted a pilot trial in 2021 involving ten migraine patients. The study aimed to determine whether a single low dose of psilocybin could reduce the frequency of migraine attacks. The results demonstrated that the drug cut participants’ headache frequency in half over the following two weeks, compared to a placebo.

While this trial was small and short-term, it provided a positive signal that spurred Dr. Schindler’s team to initiate a larger ongoing trial involving approximately two dozen migraine patients. Given that approximately 39 million people suffer from migraines in the United States alone, this research may offer hope for those seeking alternative treatment options.

How Does Psilocybin Help?

Psilocybin exerts its effects by stimulating specific brain receptors for serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with migraines. Interestingly, standard migraine medications also target serotonin receptors, albeit differently. Hence, the potential benefits of psilocybin for migraines are not far-fetched.

Individuals with cluster headaches, a severe and uncommon disorder, have long self-treated with small doses of psilocybin mushrooms or LSD to alleviate symptoms. Research on psilocybin for cluster headaches, including Dr. Schindler’s own trial in 2022, has shown promising results. While the treatment reduced headache frequency for some patients over an eight-week period, further research is necessary to fully understand its long-term effectiveness and safety.

A Potential Transitional Therapy

Dr. Schindler sees psilocybin as a potential “transitional” therapy for migraines. Transitional therapies involve a single dose or a short-duration treatment that produces lasting effects. For migraines, there are already transitional therapies like nerve block injections, which can provide relief for weeks to months.

Dr. Shae Datta, a neurologist at NYU Langone Health, agrees that new treatment options for migraines are always welcome. While the research on psilocybin for migraines is still in its early stages and requires larger studies involving diverse patient groups, it represents an encouraging step forward.

The Road Ahead

The ongoing trial led by Dr. Schindler and her team aims to compare the effectiveness of a single psilocybin dose versus two doses given a week apart. Additionally, the trial will follow patients over two months to evaluate the potential long-term benefits of psilocybin for migraines.

To be a practical transitional therapy, psilocybin must demonstrate lasting benefits while ensuring safety. Patients participating in the trials are closely monitored under medical supervision due to the psychedelic effects of psilocybin. Interestingly, the degree of psychedelic experience does not necessarily correlate with headache relief, which differentiates the migraine research from previous studies on psychiatric conditions.

While scientists continue to unravel the exact mechanisms underlying psilocybin’s therapeutic effects, its potential to create lasting changes in neural connections in the brain remains a key area of investigation.

Concluding Thoughts

The potential use of psilocybin as a treatment for migraines offers hope for many individuals who experience debilitating headaches. As the ongoing trials progress and larger studies are conducted, we will gain a better understanding of psilocybin’s safety, long-term effectiveness, and its capacity to provide lasting relief for migraine sufferers.

Headache Triggers Image Source: MedicineNet

For more information on migraine treatments, you can visit the American Migraine Foundation.

– Emmanuelle A.D. Schindler, MD, PhD, assistant professor, neurology, Yale School of Medicine, New Haven, Conn. – Shae Datta, MD, co-director, Concussion Center, NYU Langone Health, New York City – Current Pain and Headache Reports, Aug. 4, 2023, online