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Could Magic Mushrooms One Day Help Cancer Patients Face Down Death?

Two new studies show the promise of psilocybin for patients with anxiety and depression

Researchers gave capsules containing psilocybin to cancer patients with terminal cancer—and witnessed spectacular results. (NYU Langone Medical Center)
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Depression and anxiety are common among those with terminal illness. But relief could soon come in an unconventional treatment: psilocybin, the hallucinogenic compound found in so-called “magic mushrooms.” As Olga Khazan reports for The Atlantic, a pair of new studies suggest that a single dose of psilocybin can ease depression and anxiety for months in terminal cancer patients. 

The double blind, randomized studies, which were conducted at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and New York University, were recently published in The Journal of Psychopharmacology along with a number of editorials about the clinical potential of psilocybin. 

The largest trial involved 51 patients with both terminal cancer and symptoms of anxiety or depression. They were split into two groups. The first group received a low dose of psilocybin in a first session as a control and a high dose in a second session five weeks later; the second group received the doses in opposite order. Session monitors encouraged participants to “trust, let go, and be open,” write the researchers, and accompanied participants in a comfortable living room-type lab as they were given doses and encouraged to lie down and focus their attention within. Instrumental music played on headphones as the patients went on hallucinogenic trips. 

Six months later, participants in the first study reported dramatic improvements in their anxiety and depression. Seventy-eight percent reported improvement of depression, and 83 percent reported the same for their anxiety. A full 65 percent of participants reported that their depression had gone into remission, with 57 percent reporting the same for their anxiety.

The second study was similar, but smaller. In that study, 29 patients were randomly given either a single dose of psilocybin or a placebo dose of niacin—a vitamin that is known for giving a flush response and a rushing sensation similar to hallucinogens. All were given psychotherapy, and in a second treatment session seven weeks later, the patients switched treatments. Six months later, between 60 and 80 percent of the patients reported clinically significant reductions in both depression and anxiety. In addition, the first group to take psilocybin reported a significant improvement in their attitudes towards death compared to the group that took niacin first. 

“The most surprising thing to me is that it actually worked.”Stephen Ross, the lead author of the smaller NYU study, tells Khazan. And they are unsure of how it actually worked, which is something that has not been widely studied.

As Jan Hoffman reports for The New York Times, it’s theorized that hallucinogens disrupt brain circuitry by acting on serotonin receptors. As a result, brains in people who are tripping act differently than those who are not—resulting in profound, sometimes even mystical experiences that remain inaccessible to those who have not had their brain circuitry jogged by the drugs. One trial participant tells Hoffman that the experience has improved his life and that he no longer fears cancer or death. 

This isn’t the first time the substance has been studied: A 2011 pilot study at the University of California Los Angeles noted similar results in cancer patients. All three studies were funded by the Heffter Research Institute, which is devoted to advancing studies on psilocybin. 

So is a cancer diagnosis soon to be accompanied by a dose of magic mushrooms? That could be tricky: After all, the substance has been banned in the United States for decades. Any move to legalize or normalize the drug, even in cancer patients, is likely to cause controversy.

Researchers themselves, however, didn’t have to turn to illicit means to gain doses of the drug. In the Johns Hopkins University study, it was synthesized by a Purdue University pharmacologist, and the NYU study used psilocybin synthesized by a company called Organix. And the trials received intense scrutiny from regulators, government agencies and university officials. 

Now-illicit drugs like MDMA, which has been cleared by the FDA for research on its effects in patients with PTSD, are being studied with increasing frequency. As evidence mounts for the clinical application of those compounds, it could be only a matter of time before they’re an option for people looking for relief from psychiatric pain. In the meantime, people with terminal illnesses like cancer will watch and wait—and hope that the range of treatment options increases before it’s too late. 

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