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Hallucinogenic Psilocybin May Ease Depression and Anxiety in Advanced Cancer Patients

Hallucinogenic Psilocybin May Ease Depression and Anxiety in Advanced Cancer Patients

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  • Patients with advanced cancer often suffer from depression and anxiety
  • Psilocybin, a drug of abuse that cause hallucinations may improve the quality of life in these patients
  • Further studies and approvals are needed before the drug can be used for this purpose

A research team from New York University School of Medicine and the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine are evaluating the use of the hallucinogenic drug psilocybin in the treatment of anxiety and depression in patients with advanced cancer. The research is published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.

Patients with advanced cancer often have to fight depression and anxiety. The diagnosis of cancer itself can have a major impact on the patient's life. The normal life of the patient and the patient's immediate family gets totally disrupted with a large amount of time being spent in hospitals with tests done to confirm cancer and its stage, as well as receiving numerous treatments with side effects that take their own tool. These keep the patient anxious as well as predispose to depression.


The anxiety and depression can get even worse if the patient realizes that the cancer is advanced, where quite often the treatment is unable to bring about a complete recovery. Some patients may also fear the impending death due to the advanced disease. The patients often reduce social interaction and may neglect the cancer treatment. It is necessary to address these mental disruptions in the patient, and make the remainder of their lives as comfortable and happy as possible.

Researchers are exploring the use of psilocybin for the treatment of anxiety or depression in patients with advanced cancer. Of course, its use in these patients will only be possible if psilocybin gets approval from the regulatory authorities for the same.

The research study from the New York University Langone Medical Center conducted the study in 29 cancer patients who suffered from breast, digestive tract or blood cancer and severe psychological stress due to their cancer. The patients in the study were mostly women in the age range of 22 to 75 years. Around two thirds of the patients suffered from advanced stage III or stage IV cancer. The patients were given a single treatment with either 0.3 milligrams per kilogram psilocybin or 250 milligrams of niacin, a type of vitamin B which gives a "rush" following administration. After a period of seven weeks, those who initially received psilocybin were given niacin and vice versa. The patients were followed up for 8 months. The patients also received psychological counseling during this period.

Study Findings:
  • Most patients experienced quick relief from their psychological distress. Psilocybin decreased cancer-related existential distress (such as demoralization and hopelessness), increased spiritual wellbeing and quality of life, and was associated with improved attitudes towards death.
  • The relief was sustained for 7 weeks and may even last for a few months
  • Side effects included non-clinically significant elevations in blood pressure and heart rate, headaches, nausea, transient anxiety and transient near-psychotic symptoms. The patients did not experience any serious mental side effects or any other side effects that may have required hospitalization.
  • Since only a single dose is given under strict regulations, the question of abuse did not arise.
The researchers caution that psilocybin may not be for everyone, especially adolescents and schizophrenic patients. Larger studies will be required to prove the benefits of this drug in this subset of patients with advanced cancer when used along with psychological counseling. Its use in other conditions especially terminal diseases is another potential use of the drug.

Another similar study was published in the same issue of the journal by researchers from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. The results from this study also support the findings of the above study. In this study, psilocybin was found to decrease depressed mood and anxiety, improve quality of life and decrease death anxiety in patients with a life-threatening cancer diagnosis.

Psilocybin From Magic Mushrooms

Psilocybin is actually a drug of abuse that is obtained from a type of magic mushroom called Psilocybe cubensis. Ingestion of the drug causes hallucinations, where the person perceives something that is not there. It also causes an inability to differentiate fantasy and reality. It probably brings about these effects by acting on the serotoninergic system; serotonin is a brain chemical that affects the person's mood. It has been tried during studies on other mental health conditions like obsessive compulsive disorder. Its use is banned in most countries.

References :
  1. Ross S. Rapid and sustained symptom reduction following psilocybin treatment for anxiety and depression in patients with life-threatening cancer: a randomized controlled trial. J Psychopharmacol December 2016 vol. 30 no. 12 1165-1180. Doi: 10.1177/0269881116675512
  2. Griffiths RR. Psilocybin produces substantial and sustained decreases in depression and anxiety in patients with life-threatening cancer: A randomized double-blind trial. J Psychopharmacol December 2016 vol. 30 no. 12 1181-1197. Doi: 10.1177/0269881116675513
Source: Medindia

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