Hallucinogenic ‘Shrooms’ Relieve Depression, Anxiety in Cancer Patients: Study

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The active ingredient in hallucinogenic mushrooms – known as psilocybin – provides a significant boost to cancer patients facing depression, anxiety and existential fear, says a tandem of studies appearing in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.

The two studies, from researchers at Johns Hopkins University and New York University School of Medicine, both found sharply decreased levels of depression among cancer patients who received single-dose psilocybin treatments along with psychotherapy.

Psilocybin produced immediate, substantial, and sustained improvements in anxiety and depression and led to decreases in cancer-related demoralization and hopelessness, improved spiritual well-being, and increased quality of life,” report the NYU researchers in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.

Psilocybe semilanceata, also known as “magic mushrooms.” Credit: Arp, CC BY-SA 3.0
Psilocybe semilanceata, also known as “magic mushrooms.”
Credit: Arp, CC BY-SA 3.0

The NYU study tracked psilocybin use among 29 individuals and found “enduring” antidepressant effects, “sustained benefits in existential distress and quality of life, as well as improved attitudes toward death.” As a treatment method, psilocybin created “rapid, robust and enduring anxiolytic and antidepressant effects in patients with cancer-related psychological distress,” conclude the researchers.

The researchers from Johns Hopkins assessed 51 patients and likewise found “increases in quality of life, life meaning and optimism.” Those results were largely sustained over a six-month period.

“Our results represent the strongest evidence to date of a clinical benefit from psilocybin therapy, with the potential to transform care for patients with cancer-related psychological distress,” said Stephen Ross, M.D., the lead author of the NYU study.

About 40 percent of patients with cancer experience mood disorders marked by depression and anxiety, which can affect treatment adherence and lead to prolonged hospitalizations and an overall decreased quality of life, note researchers.

The two studies, supported by nearly a dozen editorials from the scientific community in the same issue, reveal a significant therapeutic opportunity for patients facing a stark challenge.

“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,” added Ross.

Lifting the Veil on ‘Magic Mushrooms’

It’s time to take the medicinal properties of mushrooms seriously, urges a diverse group of voices from the medical community contributing to the current issue of the journal.

“Too many people brought up in the Reagan drug war era with the ‘drugs fry your brain’ message, psilocybin may seem a strange and possibly even a dangerous drug treatment of serious mental illness,” writes David Nutt in an accompanying editorial.

The testimony of leading psychiatric experts who weighed in on the study – and more generally, on the effects of psilocybin as a treatment method – should help change the narrative of the drug, expresses Nutt. The experts, including renowned American and European leaders in psychiatry “all essentially say the same thing: it’s time to take psychedelic treatments in psychiatry and oncology seriously,” Nutt reports.

Cancer care may not be the only field where such treatments would create benefits, note the researchers. “Our study showed that psilocybin facilitated experiences that drove reductions in psychological distress,” said Anthony Bossis, Ph.D, co-author of the NYU study. “And if it’s true for cancer care, then it could apply to other stressful medical conditions.”

Despite the collective euphoria for treatment potential, Bossis noted that some populations should be considered off limits. “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,” he said.

Richard Scott
Richard Scott is a health care reporter focusing on health policy and public health. Richard keeps tabs on national health trends from his Philadelphia location and is an active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.
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