The active compound found in magic mushrooms, psilocybin, might be as effective as antidepressant medication in a therapeutic setting, research has found.

A study by the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London looked at the therapeutic potential of the psychedelic compound.

Researchers compared two sessions of psilocybin therapy with a six-week course of selective serotonin uptake inhibitor, escitalopram, in 59 people with moderate to severe depression.

The results, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that depression scores reduced in both groups, but the reductions happened more quickly and were greater in magnitude after the psilocybin treatment.

However, the researchers also noted the main comparison between psilocybin and escitalopram was not statistically significant, and that larger trials over a longer period of time were needed to assess psilocybin’s performance.

Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, head of the centre for psychedelic research at Imperial, who designed the study, said: ‘These results comparing two doses of psilocybin therapy with 43 daily doses of one of the best performing SSRI antidepressants help contextualise psilocybin’s promise as a potential mental health treatment. Remission rates were twice as high in the psilocybin group than the escitalopram group.

‘One of the most important aspects of this work is that people can clearly see the promise of properly delivered psilocybin therapy by viewing it compared with a more familiar, established treatment in the same study. Psilocybin performed very favourably in this head-to-head.’

Professor David Nutt, principal investigator on the study and the Edmond J Safra Chair in Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial, added: ‘These findings provide further support for the growing evidence base that shows that in people with depression, psilocybin offers an alternative treatment to traditional antidepressants.

‘In our study, psilocybin worked faster than escitalopram and was well tolerated, with a very different adverse effects profile. We look forward to further trials, which if positive should lead to psilocybin becoming a licensed medicine.’