For Cancer Patients, Psilocybin Brings Much-needed Relief

By Nathaniel Scharping | December 1, 2016 3:18 pm
psilocybe_semilanceata_6576

Fruit bodies of the fungus Psilocybe semilanceata. (Credit: Alan Rockefeller/Wikimedia Commons)

Two recent studies of psilocybin, the psychoactive compound in so-called magic mushrooms, contend that the chemical can act as a powerful remedy for cancer patients suffering from depression and anxiety.

The two studies, one from New York University and one from Johns Hopkins University, are the largest and most rigorous studies of psilocybin and depression in decades, and they report that the anti-depressant effects of the drug can last for months, offering relief to chronically ill patients for whom traditional treatments have failed to work.

Largest In Decades

The NYU study involved 29 people, and the Johns Hopkins study involved 51. Both gave controlled doses of psilocybin to patients with advanced-stage cancers who reported feelings of depression, anxiety and deep worries about the prospect of dying. The studies split participants into two groups — one that received a dose of the drug, and another that received a placebo or low dose of the drug. Seven weeks later, the groups swapped treatments, what’s called a “crossover study.”

Patients received psychiatric evaluations before, during and after the study, including a follow-up months later to ensure no adverse reactions had occurred. Throughout the trials, participants wrote about their experiences.

In both studies, up to 80 percent of the patients reported feeling less depressed, less anxious and more at ease with the prospect of dying — regardless of whether their diagnosis improved. In addition, they said that some measure of meaning had returned to their lives and they felt more optimistic. The effects persisted for at least seven weeks after taking the drug, and up to six months for some of the participants.

Mind Matters

Cancer patients often suffer from depression as a consequence of their disease, and anti-depressants are the most common means of dealing with the symptoms. Such drugs can take months to cause meaningful changes, however, and may not always work. Additional studies have shown that depression negatively affects physical health, compounding an already severe situation.

No participants reported serious adverse effects as a result of psilocybin, and none of the side effects persisted once the drug had worn off. This agrees with previous studies of psilocybin over the past 20 years, say the authors of the NYU study.

Powerful If Used Correctly

While their results, published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, are compelling, the researchers warn against attempts to self-medicate with psychotropic drugs. Their experiments were conducted in a controlled setting with pure doses of psilocybin with additional counseling sessions to help patients navigate their experiences, which perhaps minimized the risk of a “bad trip.”

If anything, the experience sounded near sublime. The authors of the NYU study report that 70 percent of the participants ranked their psilocybin trip as one of the top 5 most meaningful experiences in their lives.

Psilocybin is known to promote feelings of connectedness and good will during use, and the mind-altering experiences can serve to change long-held convictions.  Anecdotal reports from study participants, as interviewed by The Atlantic and the New York Times, indicate that the visions they saw shifted their perceptions of disease and death in a way that left them less afraid to die.

“I have a feeling that I tapped into something bigger than me … It did feel like it was connecting me to the universe,” said Carol Vincent, a participant in the Johns Hopkins study, speaking to The Atlantic.

Research Hindered By Ban

It was these sorts of powerful, surreal experiences that contributed to psilocybin and other drugs like it being banned in the late 1960s after a rash of largely unfounded reports emerged painting the drugs as highly dangerous. This led to their classification as a Schedule-I drug, the same class as heroin, and a complete halt to research.

Prior to the ban, hundreds of studies had been conducted on the potential medical benefits of psychedelic drugs, including their use in treating alcoholism, depression and obsessive compulsive disorder, among other things. For researchers to conduct similar studies now, it requires wading through reams of paperwork and jungles of red tape. As a result, studies have to be kept small, because obtaining the drugs necessary is difficult.

Still, in recent years, a number of small studies have come out examining the effects and benefits of psilocybin, LSD, ketamine and similar substances. A 2011 pilot study of cancer patients with anxiety paved the way for these most recent studies, and earlier this year, another study from the United Kingdom returned similarly positive results.

These latest studies were larger however, and add substantial weight to the argument that mind-altering drugs can prove effective if used correctly, as argued in an accompanying editorial by David Nutt, a professor of neuropsychopharmacology at University College London. It will likely be many years before any mind-altering drugs make their way into treatment regimes, though, as larger and better-funded studies still need to be done.

The mechanisms by which psychedelic mushrooms work their magic are poorly understood as well. Studies using fMRI have indicated that psilocybin acts on a serotonin receptor in the brain, and works to suppress connectivity. It has been theorized that the wild visions and feelings of connectedness that accompany a trip are the result of different regions of the brain temporarily ceasing to talk with each other, in effect altering how thoughts bounce around our brains.

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  • Rodger Rammer

    Lol, sounds like a study designed by old hippies with degrees in a deeply-flawed pseudo-science called psychology. Do thoughts really “bounce around our brains, do you think?

    • Magic Mushrooms

      Hi Rodger,
      Indeed, the study probably was designed by old hippies in psychology, but I can attest that the results do not surprise me one bit.
      My people who have all tried me find their connection to the universe much stronger. It’s as though something was missing from their world beforehand.
      If you ever find trouble dealing with an addiction, death of a loved one, PTSD, or even just have a tough decision that you need clarity on, I recommend giving me a try. I’m not for everyone, and some people find me scary, but others’ lives have been improved dramatically.
      At the very least, more good research should be done, and self medication should be done when around someone familiar with my affects.
      What a fantastic world we live in!

      • Rodger Rammer

        Hi Magic, you probably don’t remember me, but we met about 40 years ago, in a cow pasture, in the Pugent Sound area of Washington. I remember we spent an impressive and very interesting evening together. I would probably pass on meeting you again, in present time; I think you are more of a young person’s friend. Best to you, Rod

        • Magic Mushrooms

          It’s been a while hasn’t it! Best to you as well!

          • Rodger Rammer

            But if I changed my mind and wanted to see you again, how could I get I touch?

          • Magic Mushrooms

            I’m always right here. Sometimes I get busy and may take a few days to get back to you though…

    • Maia

      Metaphors, Rodger, metaphors.

  • Martha Bartha

    See! It has Medicinal Value!

  • Maia

    Medicinal value of certain mushrooms has been part of human traditional knowledge as far back as we can see into the past. Except for a few animal-derived substances, all medicine came from plants/funji. But now the modern “fashion” is to buy lab-manufactured imitations that cost tons of money and are famous for dangerous side-effects. One of those side-effects are various kinds of addictions. Which we are now turning to plants/funji to help us with! Oh what irony.

  • GORT

    This once again underscores the hypocrisy of governments criminalizing drugs that have been consumed by humans and other animals for tens of thousands of years. These drugs have been used medicinally, for religious worship, and yes, even for recreational purposes. None of these uses constitutes criminal behavior, and yet governments have seized on the opportunity to manipulate the criminal justice system in order to oppress the minorities that have historically used certain drugs.

    Why is it that the two drugs most associated with illness and death – alcohol and tobacco – enjoy unquestioned legal status in the U.S.? If our government was truly being honest in its claim that making a drug illegal was for the “good of the people”, then alcohol and tobacco should both be Schedule I drugs. The simple answer is that those two drugs generate huge tax revenues for governments at the state and federal level. What some state governments are finally realizing is that there is a huge untapped tax revenue stream from the legalization of marijuana. More states will follow, but legalizing marijuana is only a first step.

    As this article clearly demonstrates, there are many drugs with positive benefits that cannot be replicated with absurdly expensive synthetic substitutes. The fact that a person dying from a terminal disease, suffering from debilitating pain and mental anguish, could be arrested and jailed for consuming a mushroom growing in a pasture is outrageous and unconscionable. It is time for drug companies, via their well-paid lobbyists, to stop
    manipulating politicians and drug laws for their own benefit, and it is
    time for the U.S. government to honor our Constitution’s most
    fundamental tenet: the INALIENABLE RIGHT to life, liberty, and the
    PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS.

    [==*==]

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