Given that this was a “proof of principle” study–designed only to explore whether the intervention is safe–the real story here is not that the chemical seems to have made people feel better, but that its use produced no significant safety concerns in those 12 participants. Determining how effective a drug is must await controlled clinical trials, so a decision about whether psilocybin “works” is years away.
The story does contain cautionary comments by the researchers about the early nature of this effort, but headlines and starting paragraphs like the ones employed here seem to have already made the jump to possible treatment for severe depression. That, in turn, could send scores of desperate folks to their doctors’ offices, in vain. Journalists are probably not the only ones to jump the gun here. It appears that this small study generated not only a news release but also a press briefing in London, a staging effort that seems disproportionate to the modest nature of the study itself.
New treatments for depression would be welcome. However this story does not characterize the severity of depression for the subjects in the tiny trial, nor the prior treatments they were given by physicians.
Costs are not broached in this story. The story signals an early phase of research with phrases like “pilot study,” but this is overshadowed by the headline and the lead sentences, which create an expectation of benefit.
Even at a very high level, for example, the story could have told us whether this is something that could be patented and commercialized by a drug company. The price tag for such a treatment would likely be much greater than if the compound were in the public domain.
The story does offer some specific information about the outcomes of treatment for the 12 individuals in the study. Ideally it would have explained how those outcomes were actually measured–how did researchers measure what “some decrease” in symptoms meant? The same with “positive response.”
Potential risks of using hallucinogenic drugs, including anxiety and paranoia, are mentioned.
The story also could have mentioned that inducing hallucinosis can result in other self-harm and is potentially much more dangerous.
The story does provide some details about the study design. Yet, the story leaves out some important limitations (which were noted in the news release), such as:
We also felt the story minimized that this was a trial to study safety–not efficacy.
Treatment-resistant depression is truly a serious condition.
Although the funder was mentioned in the press release, that information was not included in the story. There also was no outside commentary.
The text is clear that there are few alternatives if antidepressants and therapy don’t work. The story would have been stronger if it had mentioned atypical antidepressants and electroconvulsive therapy as alternatives.
There are some small hints (it was called a “pilot study”), and one of the researchers warns readers to avoid “picking their own magic mushrooms,” but the story offers no other availability information. This sort of treatment under the supervision of a physician would not occur until after FDA approval for this specific indication, which would take many years.
There are no claims to novelty in the story. The story would have provided more useful context if it had discussed the larger body of research on this drug, and what makes this trial unique. (For example, it has been studied for OCD, anxiety in cancer patients and alcohol dependency.)
While the story did not include outside voices, it did include unique quotes from the researchers that weren’t in the news release, and this is enough to rate Satisfactory.