The psychedelic drug Psilocybin, which is the active compound in hallucinogenic “magic mushrooms,” could help cancer patients when it comes to anxiety and depression, two studies published on Thursday show.
A substantial majority of cancer patients suffering from the illnesses’ anxiety and depression found relief for up to six months when given a single large dose of psilocybin, researchers at the Johns Hopkins University and NYU’s Langone Medical Center found.
The drug decreased depressed moods, anxiety and death anxiety, while it increased quality of life, life meaning and optimism, the studies found.
The John Hopkins team conducted the study on 51 adults diagnosed with life-threatening cancers, while the NYU Langone study involved 29 participants. Participants underwent two treatment sessions, which were five weeks apart. One session involved a psilocybin dose too low to produce effects taken in a capsule and meant to act as a "control" placebo. In the second session, patients were given a capsule with a moderate or high dose.
Six months after the patients underwent a treatment session, 80 percent of participants continued to show “clinically significant decreases in depressed mood and anxiety, with about 60 percent showing symptom remission into the normal range,”John Hopkins researchers say.
Meanwhile, 83 percent of the patients showed increases in well-being or life satisfaction, and 67 percent of participants said the experience was one of the top five meaningful experiences in their lives. About 70 percent of patients described the experience as one of their top five spiritually significant lifetime events, researchers say.
"The most interesting and remarkable finding is that a single dose of psilocybin, which lasts four to six hours, produced enduring decreases in depression and anxiety symptoms, and this may represent a fascinating new model for treating some psychiatric conditions," says Roland Griffiths, professor of behavioral biology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
He added that other alternatives to help cancer patients like therapy and antidepressants can take weeks or even months and are not a guaranteed success, while drugs like benzodiazepines may have addictive and other bad side effects for patients.
“If larger clinical trials prove successful, then we could ultimately have available a safe, effective, and inexpensive medication—dispensed under strict control—to alleviate the distress that increases suicide rates among cancer patients,” said Stephen Ross, director of substance abuse services in the Department of Psychiatry and associate professor of psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine.
The reduction of depression and anxiety in participants means that psilocybin could be used on patients with other stressful medical conditions, says Anthony Bossis, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at NYU Langone.
However, Bossis warns that patients should not take the drug on their own or without medical supervision. He says psilocybin therapy may not work for all groups of people, for example, those with schizophrenia and adolescents should not be treated with it.
Psilocybin comes from certain kinds of mushrooms and is illegal in the United States.
Both studies were published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.