Health & Science


What the scientists are saying...

Magic mushrooms: offering a reconnection?
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Magic mushrooms for depression

In recent decades, there has been virtually no change in the pharmacological treatment for depression: sufferers tend to be prescribed SSRI antidepressants, which work by blocking the brain’s reuptake of serotonin. But now scientists have launched an investigation into whether psilocybin – the active ingredient in magic mushrooms – might be a more effective treatment. At the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London, around 60 adults with chronic depression are being treated either with psilocybin mushrooms or with a common SSRI. While the treatment is ongoing, neither patients nor researchers know who is in which group, and all patients also receive talking therapy. Dr Robin Carhart-Harris told The Independent that people who take SSRIs often feel that their emotions are being “blunted”, whereas those receiving psilocybin therapy “talk about an emotional release, a reconnection”. This, he said, is of more long-term value in helping people overcome depression.

A “vicious cycle” in energy use

Extreme weather is commonly seen as a product of climate change. But it is also becoming a significant driver of the crisis, a new report suggests. In its annual review of global energy trends, BP calculates that global demand for energy grew by 2.9% last year – the biggest rise since 2010 – and that a significant factor in this was the number of much colder and hotter days than normal, which led to a greater use of air conditioners, fans and heaters. As a result of this additional energy usage, carbon emissions rose by 2% – faster than in any year since 2011, and roughly the carbon equivalent of having 400 million more cars on the roads. Spencer Dale, the company’s chief economist, warned of a “worrying vicious cycle: increasing levels of carbon emissions leading to more extreme weather patterns, which in turn trigger stronger growth in energy and carbon emissions”. While the report acknowledges the “extraordinary growth” in renewable energy – up 14.5% last year – it argues that to tackle climate change we must also find ways of making fossil fuels less damaging. The oil and gas multinational has called for countries to switch from coal-generated power to gas (which produces fewer emissions), and for more government investment in carbon capture technology, to eliminate the emissions from the flues of power plants before they reach the air.

Dogs “mirror” owners’ stress

So sensitive are dogs to the well-being of their owners that they tend to experience similar levels of stress, a new study has found. Swedish researchers measured levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the hair of 58 dogs – Border collies and Shetland sheepdogs – and their owners. “We found that the levels of long-term cortisol in the dog and its owner were synchronised, such that owners with high cortisol levels have dogs with high cortisol levels,” said Ann-Sofie Sundman of Linköping University – and vice versa. The dogs’ level of activity didn’t seem to affect their cortisol levels, nor did factors such as the hours their owners worked. The researchers conclude, therefore, that dogs are picking up on their owners’ stress – but to an extent they seem also to be affected by their personalities. Curiously, though, owners deemed to have neurotic personalities had less stressed dogs – possibly because they hug and stroke them more.

A quick scan for prostate cancer

A new non-invasive MRI scan for prostate cancer could “revolutionise” diagnosis of the disease, scientists have claimed. Men in the UK aren’t screened for prostate cancer because the existing blood test – which looks for raised levels of the protein PSA – is unreliable. Most men with raised PSA levels don’t have cancer, but must have an invasive biopsy to establish this; the test misses around 10% of tumours; and it cannot distinguish slow-growing ones that don’t need treatment from the most aggressive kinds. The developers of the new ten-minute scan, which is being tested on 350 men this summer, claim it produces fewer “false positives” and can detect if the cancer is one that requires immediate treatment. Prof Mark Emberton, Dean of the UCL faculty of Medical Science, and one of the scientists trialling the test, said he hoped that the NHS would eventually adopt it as a routine screening tool.