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Study: Benefits of Psilocybin Therapy for Cancer Patients Persists for Years

In a new follow-up study, researchers from New York University (NYU) Grossman School of Medicine have found that cancer patients are still benefiting from a one-time psilocybin-assisted therapy session they received nearly five years ago.

The findings reveal that a single-dose treatment of psilocybin, the active compound in psychedelic (magic) mushrooms, combined with psychotherapy, appears to be linked to significant improvements in emotional and existential distress in cancer patients. These effects persisted nearly five years after the drug was administered.

In the original 2016 study, published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, psilocybin led to immediate, substantial, and sustained improvements in anxiety and depression and led to reductions in cancer-related demoralization and hopelessness, improved spiritual well-being, and increased quality of life.

At the final 6.5-month follow-up assessment, psilocybin was associated with lasting anti-anxiety and anti-depressant effects. About 60 to 80 percent of participants continued with clinically significant reductions in depression or anxiety, sustained benefits in existential distress and quality of life, as well as improved attitudes toward death.

The new study, published in the same journal, is a long-term follow-up (with assessments at about 3 years and 4.5 years following single-dose psilocybin administration) of a subset of participants from the original trial. The findings show sustained reductions in anxiety, depression, hopelessness, demoralization, and death anxiety at both follow-up points.

Approximately 60 to 80 percent of participants met criteria for clinically significant antidepressant or anxiolytic responses at the 4.5 year follow-up. Participants overwhelmingly (71 to 100 percent) attributed positive life changes to the psilocybin-assisted therapy experience and rated it among the most personally meaningful and spiritually significant experiences of their lives.

“Adding to evidence dating back as early as the 1950s, our findings strongly suggest that psilocybin therapy is a promising means of improving the emotional, psychological, and spiritual well-being of patients with life-threatening cancer,” said the 2016 parent study’s lead investigator, Stephen Ross, M.D., an associate professor of psychiatry in the Department of Psychiatry at NYU Langone Health.

“This approach has the potential to produce a paradigm shift in the psychological and existential care of patients with cancer, especially those with terminal illness.”

An alternative means of treating cancer-related anxiety and depression is urgently needed, Ross said. According to research, close to 40 percent of the world’s population will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime, with a third of these developing anxiety, depression and other forms of distress as a result.

These conditions are linked to poorer quality of life, higher suicide rates, and reduced survival rate. Unfortunately, conventional pharmacologic treatment methods like antidepressants work for less than half of cancer patients and tend to not work any better than placebos.

In addition, they have no effect whatsoever on existential distress and death anxiety, which commonly accompany a cancer diagnosis and are linked to a hastened desire for death and increased suicidality, said Ross.

The team says psilocybin may provide a useful tool for enhancing the effectiveness of psychotherapy and may ultimately relieve these symptoms. Although the precise mechanisms are not fully understood, experts believe that the compound can make the brain more flexible and receptive to new ideas and thought patterns.

“These results may shed light on how the positive effects of a single dose of psilocybin persist for so long,” said Gabby Agin-Liebes, a  Ph.D. candidate, lead investigator and lead author of the long-term follow-up study, and co-author of the 2016 parent study. “The drug seems to facilitate a deep, meaningful experience that stays with a person and can fundamentally change his or her mindset and outlook,” she says.

Source: New York University

Study: Benefits of Psilocybin Therapy for Cancer Patients Persists for Years

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2020). Study: Benefits of Psilocybin Therapy for Cancer Patients Persists for Years. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 22, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 3 Feb 2020 (Originally: 3 Feb 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 3 Feb 2020
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