The results from two landmark studies show that a well-known hallucinogen can enhance the lives of those suffering from severe anxiety and depression due to a life-threatening cancer diagnosis.
This morning, the Journal of Psychopharmacology published research from New York University Langone Medical Center and Johns Hopkins Medical School which concluded that a single large dose of psilocybin — the mind-altering active compound found in psychedelic mushrooms — combined with psychological counseling greatly eases mental anguish in distressed cancer patients for months. These study results were also endorsed in 11 accompanying editorials from leading experts in psychiatry, addiction, and palliative care.
“Cancer is a highly prevalent disorder, and the rates of diagnosable anxiety or depressive disorders in cancer are also very high, as high as 40 to 50 percent,” Stephen Ross, MD, lead investigator and director of substance abuse services in the Department of Psychiatry at NYU Langone, tells Yahoo Beauty during a media teleconference. “And the rates of existential distress (defined as fear of death, or a sense of life being meaningless) in cancer patients is also significant — upwards of a third.”
He explains that the small NYU study consisted of 29 participants — mostly Caucasian females in their mid-50s who were diagnosed with metastatic gynecological cancer — and took place over a nine-month period. Half of the volunteers were randomly assigned to receive a 0.3 milligrams-per-kilogram dose of psilocybin, while the others were given a vitamin placebo (250 milligrams of niacin) known to produce a “rush” that mimics a hallucinogenic drug experience. About seven weeks later, the patients switched treatments.
“We found that psilocybin was a rapid, immediately acting anti-anxiety and antidepressant,” says Ross. “Eighty percent of individuals had clinically significant antidepressant and anti-anxiety responses one day after receiving psilocybin, and 60 to 80 percent of individuals at the six-and-a-half month follow-up continued to have enduring benefits. The magnitude of difference between the psilocybin and the placebo was large.”
Ross adds that this drug decreased the patients’ existential distress as well, an effect that lasted through their follow-up appointment.
“We found that psilocybin improved quality of life, improved spirituality, improved life satisfaction, improved altruism, and improved attitudes toward death,” he states. “Seventy percent of the individuals rated the experience as the single or top-five most meaningful experience of their life.”
Roland Griffiths, PhD, professor of behavioral biology in the departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and of Neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, explains that its trial — which consisted of 51 patients diagnosed with life-threatening cancers, most of which were recurrent or metastatic — produced similar results.
“The finding that a single administration of a relatively short-acting drug has rapid, substantial, and enduring antidepressant and anti-anxiety effects is really unprecedented in psychiatry and psycho-oncology,” Griffiths tells Yahoo during the same media teleconference. “And it really may represent a potential paradigm shift for treating patients suffering with cancer-related psychological distress.”
Since this psychedelic substance is currently banned in the U.S., federal waivers were required in order for these trials to occur.
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.
Dinah Bazer, who took part in the NYU trial, explains that anxiety and fear of a cancer recurrence following a successful surgery and treatment of chemotherapy for ovarian cancer consumed her existence. “It was running my life and ruining my life,” she says.
During her supervised dosage, she visualized her fear as a physical mass in her body.
“I became volcanically angry and I screamed at it, ‘Get the f*** out!’” states Bazer, who is from Brooklyn, N.Y. “And it was gone. I then went into a state of — as an atheist, it is hard for me to say — but I was bathed in God’s love, and that continued for hours.”
She considers this psychedelic drug to be a lifesaver.
“I realized that I no longer wanted to be in a hurry — I gave myself time to do the things I needed to do,” says Bazer. “I renewed old acquaintances; I built new friendships; I was able to reach out in a way I never had before.”
Sherry Marcy from Ann Arbor, Mich., signed up for the trial at Johns Hopkins after completing treatment (surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy) for life-threatening gynecological cancer and endometrial cancer. “When I first talked to Johns Hopkins, I described myself as ‘doomed.’ That was exactly how I felt,” she states.
After receiving her single dose of psilocybin, she felt as if “the cloud of doom” had lifted. “I reconnected with my family, my kids, and my wonder at life,” she explains.
Today, Marcy partakes in numerous activities, including reading, singing, and tai chi.
“Before, I was sitting alone at home and I couldn’t move,” she concludes. “Psilocybin made a huge difference, and it’s persisted.”
Lisa Callaghan offers her praise on behalf of her late husband, Patrick Mettes, who passed away in 2012 after a nearly five-year battle with cancer of the bile ducts. She says the 54-year-old TV news director was “enthusiastic” about being a part of this research at NYU.
“He described his trip beautifully in a journal entry that he wrote the weekend after his dosing, comparing it to a space shuttle launch,” says Callaghan. “’It begins with the clunky trappings of earth and then gives way to the weightlessness and majesty of space.’”
She adds that Mettes’ interpretation “parallels the experiences that some of the doctors have alluded to of seekers and shamans from so many different traditions,” continues Callaghan. “I see that now too, but I wanted to mention that this was not his expectation. It’s what he was given through this study.”
Overall, the effects stayed with her husband until he took his last breath.
“He was not afraid of death, and in fact, he seemed to grow through the process of dying,” she states. “My brother was with us quite a bit at that time and says that he thought Patrick’s spirit grew as his body declined.”
The study authors currently await the approval of a phase III clinical trial. “The next phase of the research …, with several hundred participants, would replicate what we found both at NYU and Johns Hopkins,” adds Ross.