CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WNCN) — When people think of psychedelic drugs, many think of the 1960s and 70s — concerts and tie dye. Fewer people think of a doctor’s office or research laboratory at the University of North Carolina, but researchers’ work at UNC may dictate what psychedelic drugs are used for in the future, like treating depression.

Dr. Robert McClure, the Director of Interventional Psychiatry at UNC is planning a study using psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression. Psilocybin is the active ingredient in magic mushrooms.

He already treats patients with Ketamine, which, he explained, acts on the brain differently but shares some similarities with the psychedelic, psilocybin.

“It does effect mind-altering experiences but it’s much shorter acting,” he explained. 

CBS 17 spoke with a woman who lives in the Triangle and receives esketamine, a nasal-spray form of ketamine that is FDA approved to treat depression. 

“It sends you into a whole-body experience,” she said. “It’s sort of like a buzz is the best way I can describe it.”

In order to protect her privacy, she asked us not to reveal her face or name. She says she’s battled depression for decades. “I felt like I was literally in the gutter with two hands up saying,  ‘Please help me,'” she said.

After trying numerous other medications, she now receives esketamine in Dr. McClure’s Chapel Hill clinic. She said the treatment is given twice a week for four weeks, then once a week for four weeks. 

“They check on me about every 40 minutes to check my blood pressure and stuff like that,” she explained, adding that she experiences the mind-altering effects of the treatment for an hour or two.

“I don’t really hallucinate, but I could see if I look at the ceiling, it looked like it was moving just slightly,” she recalled.

Dr. McClure explained the effects some patients feel.

“They may feel like they’re on the outside of their body looking in,” he noted. “They may have altered vision or alterations of what they see; things may seem super close up or super far away.  What they hear may be altered.”

We asked whether those experiences play a role in alleviating depression.

“That’s not 100 percent clear,” McClure responded. “Those experiences do happen, and those side effects are very intense, but they pass within one or two hours and are generally gone after a good night’s sleep.”

The patient says she started to feel better after a few treatments. 

Dr. McClure says psilocybin may relieve depression even more quickly and substantially, but it produces longer-lasting more intense hallucinogenic effects, which means treatments would be intense and time consuming.

“The mystical spiritual experiences, the altered perceptions last longer—for up to 6 to 8 hours—so patients need to be monitored and supported for up to 6-8 hours,” he said. 

That would work for some patients, but isn’t practical for everyone, even if studies ultimately do show psychedelics are safe and effective mental health treatments.

That’s one reason Dr. Bryan Roth, distinguished professor of pharmacology at UNC, is looking for ways to take the “trip” out of psychedelic drugs. 

Roth has been researching psychedelics since the 1980s, and says they’ve shown incredible promise in treating depression in small, early-stage clinical trials.

“The results were remarkable,” he noted. “I’m a psychiatrist by training, and there’s nothing that we have that has that potential effect.”

Still, psychedelic drugs face another barrier, in addition to time and cost that would come with treatment — many people simply don’t want to hallucinate.

“When I treated patients with depression, the vast majority of them—if I had raised the possibility of eating magic mushrooms—there was no way,” Roth said. 

Now, his lab is working to determine whether the therapeutic aspects of psychedelics can be separated from the hallucinogenic aspects. 

“We’re actually making drugs now, or drug-like compounds, that interact with the same sites in the brain as psychedelic drugs do but they don’t have they don’t cause the psychedelic effect,” he explained. 

His team’s next step is to find the right compound to bring to clinical trials.

While Roth said psychedelics could hold great potential for treating depression, they wouldn’t be for everyone. He says psychedlics cannot be given to anyone with a family history of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. He also expressed some concern about the potential for heart valve disease in some patients if they use the drug repeatedly over an extended period of time.

The psilocybin study Dr. McClure is planning would look at just one or two psilocybin treatments, not long term use. 

As researchers investigate psychedelic treatments, both with and without the trip, people who know the darkness of depression, are grateful for any potential advances. 

The patient we spoke with hopes that people won’t be judgmental about new treatment possibilities. “People tend to misunderstand what mental illness is,” she said.

“Mental illness exists and does need to be treated,” she added. “There should be options.”