Serotonergic psychedelics are re-emerging as potential novel treatments for several psychiatric disorders including major depressive disorder. The Canadian Network for Mood and Anxiety Treatments (CANMAT) convened a task force to review the evidence and provide a consensus recommendation for the clinical use of psychedelic treatments for major depressive disorder.
A systematic review was conducted to identify contemporary clinical trials of serotonergic psychedelics for the treatment of major depressive disorder and cancer-related depression. Studies published between January 1990 and July 2021 were identified using combinations of search terms, inspection of bibliographies and review of other psychedelic reviews and consensus statements. The levels of evidence for efficacy were graded according to the Canadian Network for Mood and Anxiety Treatments criteria.
Only psilocybin and ayahuasca have contemporary clinical trials evaluating antidepressant effects. Two pilot studies showed preliminary positive effects of single-dose ayahuasca for treatment-resistant depression (Level 3 evidence). Small randomized controlled trials of psilocybin combined with psychotherapy showed superiority to waitlist controls and comparable efficacy and safety to an active comparator (escitalopram with supportive psychotherapy) in major depressive disorder, with additional randomized controlled trials showing efficacy specifically in cancer-related depression (Level 3 evidence). There was only one open-label trial of psilocybin in treatment-resistant unipolar depression (Level 4 evidence). Small sample sizes and functional unblinding were major limitations in all studies. Adverse events associated with psychedelics, including psychological (e.g., psychotomimetic effects) and physical (e.g., nausea, emesis and headaches) effects, were generally transient.
There is currently only low-level evidence to support the efficacy and safety of psychedelics for major depressive disorder. In Canada, as of 2022, psilocybin remains an experimental option that is only available through clinical trials or the special access program. As such, Canadian Network for Mood and Anxiety Treatments considers psilocybin an experimental treatment and recommends its use primarily within clinical trials, or, less commonly, through the special access program in rare, special circumstances.