Magic mushroom compound may help ease cancer-related depressions

A single dose of psilocybin - the psychedelic compound in magic mushrooms - may reduce anxiety and depression in patients with advanced cancer, according to the results of two new studies.
Both studies - conducted by investigators from the NYU Langone Medical Center in New York, NY, and Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore, MD - were recently published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.
Psilocybin is a substance present in various mushrooms - often called magic mushrooms or “shrooms” - found in Europe, South America, and the United States.
Psilocybin is a Schedule I substance under America’s Controlled Substances Act, which means it is deemed as having "a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision."
The new study, however, suggests there may be a medical use for psilocybin after all; it could help alleviate cancer-related psychological distress.
Cancer, anxiety, and depression
According to the National Cancer Institute, more than 1.6 million people in the U.S. will be diagnosed with cancer in 2016, with breast, lung, and colorectal cancers among the most common.
While cancer mortality has improved significantly in recent decades, almost 600,000 Americans are expected to die from the disease this year. This outcome is more likely for patients whose cancer has become advanced - that is, it has spread to other areas of the body or is no longer responding to treatment.
Unsurprisingly, feelings of anxiety and depression are widespread among patients with cancer; the National Cancer Institute report that around 15-25 percent of individuals experience depression after a cancer diagnosis.
“A life-threatening cancer diagnosis can be psychologically challenging, with anxiety and depression as very common symptoms,” says Roland Griffiths, Ph.D., co-author of the Johns Hopkins study and professor of behavioral biology in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and Neuroscience at Johns Hopkins.
“People with this kind of existential anxiety often feel hopeless and are worried about the meaning of life and what happens upon death,” he adds.
Previous research has suggested that psilocybin may be effective in alleviating symptoms of anxiety and depression. With this in mind, the two research teams set out to investigate whether the substance might be helpful for patients with cancer-related anxiety and depression.
Psilocybin’s psychological benefits lasted for 6 months
For the first study, Griffiths and team enrolled 51 adults of an average age of 56 who had been diagnosed with life-threatening cancers, the majority of which were breast, upper digestive tract, gastrointestinal tract, genitourinary, or blood cancers.
Most of the cancers were recurrent or metastatic, the team reports, and 92 percent of subjects were white.
Each patient took part in two treatment sessions. In the first session, patients received a low, “control” dose of psilocybin (1 or 3 milligrams per 70 kilograms) in the form of the capsule. In the second session, which took place 5 weeks later, patients received a moderate or high dose of the compound (22 or 30 milligrams per 70 kilograms).
The researchers assessed patients’ mood, behaviors, symptoms of anxiety and depression, attitude toward life, and spirituality before the first treatment session, 7 hours after using psilocybin, 5 weeks after each treatment session, and 6 months after the second treatment session.
Anxiety and depression were monitored using tools such as the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale, the Hamilton Anxiety Rating Scale, and the Beck Depression Inventory.
The researchers found that patients showed immediate reduction in symptoms of anxiety and depression after being treated with moderate or high doses of psilocybin.
What is more, the effects of psilocybin persisted; around 80 percent of patients showed clinically significant reductions in anxiety and depression at 6 months after the final treatment session.
Additionally, the compound was found to increase well-being and life satisfaction for around 67 percent of patients.