Chemical Found in Magic Mushrooms Can Help Cancer Patients Manage Depression and Anxiety

Scientists from Johns Hopkins University conducted a large psilocybin study and found that the drug helped cancer patients with depression and anxiety. The drug, which is extracted from hallucinogenic mushrooms, provided most patients with relief for six months. The details are in a paper that was just published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.

Psilocybin is a hallucinogenic compound found in so-called “psychedelic” mushroom species. Some of these mushroom species are sold as “magic mushrooms” or “shrooms” and used recreationally. Common effects include visual hallucinations, unusual thought patterns, time distortion, euphoria, and changes in perception. Some users report major spiritual experiences or the feeling of “connectedness” with nature and other people. Previous pilot studies had pointed to a possible therapeutic use of psilocybin in treating patients with end-stage cancer or other life-threatening diagnoses.

The research team conducted a randomized, double-blind trial with 51 end-stage cancer patients who had expressed cancer-related anxiety or depression. Some patients were given a dose so low as to be considered a placebo while others were given a dose of about 22 or 30 mg per 70 kg. The drug was administered under the supervision of two trained monitors and the entire session was managed under controlled conditions. After five weeks, the groups were switched and the patients who had received the high dose were given the placebo and vice versa. All patients were told they were being given psilocybin in both trials.

The team found that patients who received a normal psilocybin dose reported increased optimism, acceptance of death, spirituality, and higher quality of life. Depression and anxiety symptoms decreased significantly. The researchers performed a follow-up six months later and over 80% of the treated patients had retained the beneficial effects. Even after six months, the patients reported less depression, anxiety, and higher life satisfaction. The team was surprised that the effects were so long-lasting–though previous studies have had similar results. The authors caution that treatments were performed in a controlled environment and that there are possible negative side effects. Some patients reported nausea, paranoia, or headaches during or right after the session. Even these patients had improved mood after treatment, however.

The findings suggest that further research is needed to fully investigate the therapeutic effects of psilocybin in patients with terminal illnesses. The drug shows promise in managing anxiety and depression symptoms in cancer patients.

REFERENCE

Griffiths et al. Psilocybin produces substantial and sustained decreases in depression and anxiety in patients with life-threatening cancer: A randomized double-blind trial. Journal of Psychopharmacology (2016).

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