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Reuters jumps the gun on 12-patient trial to test safety of ‘magic mushrooms’


3 Star


Magic mushroom ingredient may ease severe depression, study suggests

Our Review Summary

depression, mental health, agingThis is a story about a small study of the use of psilocybin—the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms”—among 12 people suffering from treatment-resistant depression.

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.


Why This Matters

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.


Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

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.

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?


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.”

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?


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.

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Not Satisfactory

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:

  • The absence of any attempt to “blind” participants meant that they knew they were taking psilocybin and might have been influenced by that.
  • There also was no control group, which is critical to determining whether the positive results might reflect a placebo effect.
  • It’s also unclear what type tool was used to measure depressive symptoms.

We also felt the story minimized that this was a trial to study safety–not efficacy.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?


Treatment-resistant depression is truly a serious condition.

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?

Not Satisfactory

Although the funder was mentioned in the press release, that information was not included in the story. There also was no outside commentary.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?


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.

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

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.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?


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.)

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?


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.

Total Score: 6 of 10 Satisfactory


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