Hallucinogenic drug psilocybin eases existential anxiety in people with life-threatening cancer
In a small double-blind study, Johns Hopkins researchers report that a substantial majority of people suffering cancer-related anxiety or depression found considerable relief for up to six months from a single large dose of psilocybin, the active compound in hallucinogenic "magic mushrooms."
In the 1950s and ’60s, hallucinogenic drugs such as lysergic acid diethylamide, LSD and psilocybin, which is found naturally in certain mushrooms, were widely used in U.S. biomedical research and in psychotherapy practices. But in 1966, as the psychedelic drugs gained a broad counterculture following in the United States, the U.S. government declared any use of the drugs illegal. By the 1970s, that ended all American research on their potential therapeutic benefits.
The Johns Hopkins team released its study results, involving 51 adult patients, concurrently with researchers from New York University Langone Medical Center, who conducted a similarly designed study on 29 participants. Both studies are published today in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.
The researchers cautioned that the drug was given in tightly controlled conditions in the presence of two clinically trained monitors and said they do not recommend use of the compound outside of such a research or patient care setting.
The Johns Hopkins group reports that psilocybin decreased depressed mood, anxiety, and death anxiety; it increased quality of life, life meaning, and optimism. Six months after the final session of treatment, about 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.
Eighty-three percent reported increases in well-being or life satisfaction. Some 67 percent of participants reported the experience as one of the top five meaningful experiences in their lives, and about 70 percent reported the experience as one of the top five spiritually significant lifetime events.
“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,” says Roland Griffiths, professor of behavioral biology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “This may represent a fascinating new model for treating some psychiatric conditions.”
"Before beginning the study, it wasn't clear to me that this treatment would be helpful, since cancer patients may experience profound hopelessness in response to their diagnosis, which is often followed by multiple surgeries and prolonged chemotherapy," Griffiths says. "I could imagine that cancer patients would receive psilocybin, look into the existential void and come out even more fearful. However, the positive changes in attitudes, moods, and behavior that we documented in healthy volunteers were replicated in cancer patients."