A single dose of psilocybin — the hallucinogenic compound found in psychedelic mushrooms — has been found to significantly reduce mental anguish in patients with advanced cancer for up to several months, according to a new study led by researchers at New York University (NYU) Langone Medical Center.
The findings show that a one-time treatment of psilocybin — whose use required federal waivers because it is a banned substance — brought instant relief from distress to cancer patients, and the effects lasted for more than six months in 80 percent of the 29 study subjects monitored, based on clinical evaluation scores for anxiety and depression.
All patients in the study — mostly women age 22 to 75 who are or were patients at the Perlmutter Cancer Center of NYU Langone — had either advanced breast, gastrointestinal, or blood cancers and had been diagnosed as suffering from serious psychological distress related to their disease.
All patients were provided with tailored counseling from a psychiatrist, psychologist, nurse, or social worker, and were monitored for side effects and improvements in their mental state.
“Our results represent the strongest evidence to date of a clinical benefit from psilocybin therapy, with the potential to transform care for patients with cancer-related psychological distress,” said study lead investigator Stephen Ross, M.D., director of substance abuse services in the Department of Psychiatry at NYU Langone.
“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 Ross, also an associate professor of psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine.
Study co-investigator Jeffrey Guss, M.D., a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at NYU Langone, notes that psilocybin has been studied for decades and has an established safety profile. He adds that none of the study participants experienced any serious negative effects, such as hospitalization or more serious mental health conditions.
Although the neurological benefits of psilocybin are not completely understood, the compound has been shown to activate parts of the brain also impacted by the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is known to regulate mood and anxiety. Serotonin imbalances have also been linked to depression.
For the study, half of the subjects were randomly given a 0.3 milligram dose of psilocybin while the rest received a vitamin placebo (250 milligrams of niacin) known to produce a “rushing” feeling.
About halfway through the study’s monitoring period (after seven weeks), all participants switched treatments. Those who were initially given psilocybin took a single dose of placebo, and those who first took niacin, then received psilocybin. Neither patients nor researchers knew who had first received psilocybin or placebo.
“The randomization, placebo control and double-blind procedures maximized the validity of the study results,” said Guss.
One significant finding was that reductions in levels of anxiety and depression lasted for the remainder of the study’s extended monitoring period; specifically, eight months for those who took psilocybin first.
Co-investigator Anthony Bossis, Ph.D., a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at NYU Langone, said patients also reported post-psilocybin improvements in their quality of life: going out more, greater energy, getting along better with family members, and doing well at work. Several also reported variations of spirituality, unusual peacefulness, and increased feelings of altruism.
“Our study showed that psilocybin facilitated experiences that drove reductions in psychological distress,” said Bossis. “And if it’s true for cancer care, then it could apply to other stressful medical conditions.”
Bossis cautioned that patients should not consume psilocybin on their own or without supervision by a physician and a trained counselor. He also said, “Psilocybin therapy may not work for everyone, and some groups, such as people with schizophrenia, as well as adolescents, should not be treated with it.”
The NYU Langone-led study, appearing in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, was published side by side with a similar study from Johns Hopkins. Study results were also endorsed in 11 accompanying editorials from leading experts in psychiatry, addiction, and palliative care.
Source: NYU Langone Medical Center