A new study shows that psilocybin, a medicine made of magic mushrooms,  produces substantial and sustained decreases in depression and anxiety in patients with life-threatening cancer. A low and a high dose of the drug was administered to 51 cancer patients. After six months of getting the last dose of the drug, about 80 percent of the participants showed a significant reduction of depression, anxiety and an increase in life satisfaction.

People diagnosed with cancer are vulnerable to develop chronic and clinically symptoms of depression and anxiety along with a reduction of quality of life. Up to 40 percent of patients with life-threatening cancer suffer a mood disorder. Studies have proved that depression and anxiety are associated with less treatment adherence, prolonged hospitalizations, increased in suicidality and early death.

Image credit: Quartz
Image credit: Quartz

Antidepressants are not effective nor recommendable since their efficacy is limited and their use should only be for a short period due to benzodiazepines side effects, which include withdrawal. Psychological approaches have only shown small to medium positive effects in cancer patients when it comes to distress and quality of life compared to previous hallucinogens studies.

Psilocybin and (+)-lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) have proven to change thoughts perceptions and emotions in the past in several studies that were carried between the 1960s and 70s. Those studies suggested that both psilocybin and LSD were effective treating psychological disorders in cancer patients but after the spread of their recreative use, psychopharmacology trials came to a halt.

A team from the University School of Medicine in Baltimore published online in the Journal of  Psychopharmacology the most recent study involving  hallucinogens. The research is the most rigorous evaluation to date of the efficacy of psilocybin for the treatment of depression and anxiety in cancer patients.

Two psilocybin doses reduced depression and anxiety in 80 percent of patients

The double- blind cross-over study divided the 51 participants into two groups which received a low psilocybin dose used as a placebo, and a higher dose of the drug to see its effect on their mood in the months after consuming the drug.

Participants were recruited through flyers, the internet, and physician referral. All 51 patients were diagnosed with a potentially life-threatening cancer including breast, aerodigestive and gastrointestinal cancer. Around  65 percent of them had the frequent or metastatic disease. All participants also suffered anxiety and depression.

The study consisted of two sessions where one of the groups received a low dose of psilocybin first, and in the other session received a high dose of the drug. The other group had the higher dose first and the lower one after.

The trial compared the effects of a low versus a high psilocybin dose on measures of depressed mood, anxiety and quality of time and how long those effects lasted in patients. Between the first session and the second researchers waited five weeks and the follow-up of the effects of both doses lasted six months.

The sessions were conducted in a living-room-like environment with two monitors present. Before taking the drug, researchers made sure participants had a low-fat breakfast and took them a urine sample to make sure they had not used other drugs such as cocaine, benzodiazepines, and opioids. Those who used cannabis or dronabinol were asked not to use for 24 hours before the sessions to not affect the veracity of the results.

After taking psilocybin, the higher or the lower dose, cancer patients were encouraged to lie down on the couch. They used an eye mask to block external visual distraction and used headphones to listen to music to help them focus their attention on the drug experience and not on their attitudes, ideas or emotions related to their disease.

None of the participants suffered serious adverse effects to psilocybin. Only 15 percent in the high-dose session experienced nausea or vomiting and 21 percent physical discomfort. There were no cases of hallucinogen persisting perception disorder or prolonged psychosis according to the study.

The results: Psilocybin proved to be an efficient treatment cancer patients negative mood

The two sessions of psilocybin demonstrated a significant reduction in depressed mood and anxiety and an improvement in the quality of life in almost all participants with life-threatening cancer diagnoses. The effects lasted six months after the last administered dose.

The overall rate of clinical response at six months was 78 percent for anxiety and 83 percent for depression, and the overall of symptom remission was 65 percent and 57 percent respectively.

Most of the participants -80 percent-  said that after the high-dose the experienced positive changes in their attitude, improved well-being, relationships, and life. These changes were confirmed by family friends and coworkers close to the cancer patient.

More studies are needed to see if psilocybin and other hallucinogens can be used to treat psychological distress linked to cancer diagnoses. A larger and diverse population is vital to prove that the drug is effective and to start to change the negative connotation magic mushrooms and LSD has. 

Source: Journal of  Psychopharmacology