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Powerful hallucinogens reduce anxiety and depression in cancer patients

Magic mushrooms
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Magic mushrooms

A single dose of a hallucinogenic drug helped cancer patients stave off depression and anxiety for months on end, according to two new studies from major U.S. institutions.

Teams of researchers at Johns Hopkins University and New York University each published side-by-side studies in the Journal of Psychopharmacology on Thursday, outlining evidence for the therapeutic potential of hallucinogenic drugs in patients struggling with the emotional and mental toll of cancer treatment.

Both randomized, double-blind studies, reported that patients administered the drug showed improvements in mood, well-being and other markers of emotional and mental health even long after the effects of the drug wore off.

The experiences they had while on the drug appear to have given them new perspectives on their lives and on the disease.

Johns Hopkins researchers observed elevated emotions for up to six months after the treatment, and the NYU team saw positive effects up to eight months later.

"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," said NYU psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry Stephen Ross, one of the authors of the NYU study.

The Johns Hopkins team administered a single dose of psilocybin, the active ingredient in "magic mushrooms," also known as "shrooms" and by other names, to 51 cancer patients in a controlled setting. The NYU study recruited a group of 29. Most of the patients had advanced stage cancer of one kind or another, and were suffering psychological distress over their condition.

The studies had similar designs.

Patients were treated two times, five weeks apart. In one session, they received a placebo, or control. The Johns Hopkins patients simply received a tiny dose of the drug too low to produce effect. The NYU patients received a vitamin pill.

In the other treatment session, patients in both studies took a dose of the drug large enough to produce effects.

During the six or so hours while the drug took effect, many patients reported having mystical experiences, feeling a sense of connectedness to the world and an increased acceptance of their disease and death.

"Psilocybin experiences were reported as highly meaningful and spiritual, and associated with positive cognitive, affective, spiritual and behavioral effects lasting weeks to months," said the NYU study.

And the Johns Hopkins study noted, "When administered under psychologically supportive, double blind conditions, a single dose of psilocybin produced substantial and enduring decreases in depressed mood and anxiety along with increases in quality of life and decreases in death anxiety in patients with a life-threatening cancer diagnosis."

Patients did not experience any serious adverse effects from taking the drug, but there were some who felt some less serious physical symptoms, such as temporary stomach sickness and vomiting, or some fleeting psychological symptoms, such as anxiety or paranoia.

Both teams acknowledged the importance of clinical supervision for the patients in the study, meaning they warned against trying this at home. They also acknowledged that their studies were rather limited in size, and called for further research with larger groups.

If the drug, which has been illegal in the United States for several decades, is approved for use in clinical settings, it could become another tool doctors use to ease the pain and stress of serious and terminal diseases.

"A life-threatening cancer diagnosis can be psychologically challenging, with anxiety and depression as very common symptoms," said Roland Griffiths, who is a professor of behavioral biology Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and a co-author of the JHU study. "People with this kind of existential anxiety often feel hopeless and are worried about the meaning of life and what happens upon death."