A single dose of psilocybin, the active compound in psychedelic mushrooms, significantly lessens the anxiety and depression in distressed people with advanced cancer for 6-8 months, two clinical trials by researchers at NYU and Johns Hopkins show.
Researchers say when combined with psychological counseling the results are remarkable. The volunteers had “profoundly meaningful and spiritual experiences” which made most of them rethink life and death, ended their despair and brought about lasting improvement in the quality of their lives.
Around 40-50% of newly diagnosed cancer patients suffer some sort of depression or anxiety. Antidepressants have little effect, particularly on the “existential” depression that can lead some to feel their lives are meaningless and contemplate suicide.
The one-time treatment with the hallucinogenic drug psilocybin — whose use required federal waivers because it is a banned substance — quickly brought relief from distress that then lasted for more than six months in 80 percent of the 29 study subjects monitored, based on clinical evaluation scores for anxiety and depression.
Published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, the study results were also endorsed in 11 accompanying editorials from leading scientists in the fields of psychiatry and palliative care, who all back further research.
Study co-investigator Jeffrey Guss, MD, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at NYU Langone, notes that psilocybin has been studied for decades and has an established safety profile. Study participants, he says, experienced no serious negative effects, such as hospitalization or more serious mental health conditions.
Although the neurological benefits of psilocybin are not completely understood, it has been proven to activate parts of the brain also impacted by the signaling chemical serotonin, which is known to control mood and anxiety. Serotonin imbalances have also been linked to depression.
All patients in the study — mostly women age 22 to 75 who are or were patients had either advanced breast, gastrointestinal, or blood cancers and had been diagnosed as suffering from serious psychological distress related to their disease. All volunteers were provided with tailored counseling from a psychiatrist, psychologist, nurse or social worker, and were monitored for side effects and improvements in their mental state.
Co-investigator Anthony Bossis, PhD at NYU Langone, says patients also reported post-psilocybin improvements in their quality of life: going out more, greater energy, getting along better with family members, and doing well at work. Several also reported variations of spirituality, unusual peacefulness, and increased feelings of altruism.
“Our study showed that psilocybin facilitated experiences that drove reductions in psychological distress, ” says Bossis. “And if it’s true for cancer care, then it could apply to other stressful medical conditions.”
Bossis cautions that patients should not consume psilocybin on their own or without supervision by a physician and a trained counselor. He also says “Psilocybin therapy may not work for everyone, and some groups, such as people with schizophrenia, as well as adolescents, should not be treated with it.”