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Psilocybin May Reduce Depression and Anxiety in Cancer Patients for Years

Sep 7, 2020
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A single dose of psilocybin, the psychedelic compound found in “magic mushrooms”, appears to reduce depression and anxiety in cancer patients, even years later, according to researchers.

The same team carried out a landmark study back in 2016, which found that patients treated with psilocybin and psychotherapy sessions experienced “immediate, substantial, and sustained improvements in anxiety and depression”.

In a new study, published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, scientists conducted a long-term follow-up with patients from the original trial to determine how long these benefits lasted. The majority of participants reported fewer signs of depression and anxiety than before they underwent treatment.

New Research Builds on Evidence Supporting the Benefits of Psilocybin

The team assessed 15 original participants from the 2016 study, testing for changes in anxiety, depression, demoralization, and death anxiety. Surveys were conducted at two different points—about three years and 4.5 years after the first single-dose of psilocybin. 

Similar to the original research, around 60 to 80 percent of the participants reported clinically significant reductions in anxiety and depression—with an overwhelming 70 to 100 percent attributing positive life changes to their psilocybin-assisted therapy experience.

“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,” says Dr. Stephen Ross, an associate professor of psychiatry at NYU Langone Health and lead author of the 2016 study. 

Though the researchers do not fully understand the precise mechanisms of psilocybin, many experts believe that the compound affects the neuroplasticity of the brain, making it more receptive to new ideas or thought patterns. 

“These results may shed light on how the positive effects of a single dose of psilocybin persist for so long,” says Gabby Agin-Liebes, the lead author of the follow-up study and co-author of the original 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.”

Agin-Liebes does caution that psilocybin on its own, used recreationally, does not lead to positive therapeutic effects, saying, “It should be taken in a controlled and psychologically safe setting, preferably with counseling from trained mental health practitioners or facilitators.”

Psilocybin-Assisted Therapy Could Be an Effective Alternative for Cancer Patients

As of 2018, there were an estimated 18 million cancer cases worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. Nearly 40 percent of the global population will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their life—about 2 in 5 people—and a third of those people will develop anxiety, depression, or other forms of distress. 

An alternative to conventional treatment methods for cancer-related anxiety and depression is urgently needed.

Unfortunately, according to Dr. Ross, conventional pharmacologic treatments, such as antidepressants, are effective for less than half of cancer patients—and offer no relief whatsoever for emotional distress or death anxiety. And cancer patients aren’t the only people struggling with treatment-resistant depression—up to one third of all patients suffering from major depression battle symptoms that fail to respond to any treatment. 

“This could profoundly transform the psycho-oncologic care of patients with cancer, and importantly could be used in hospice settings to help terminally ill cancer patients approach death with improved emotional and spiritual well-being,” Ross said. 

The study does have its limitations, including monitoring a small number of patients and overlapping research with the previous study. However, the findings do suggest the long-lasting benefits of psilocybin on mental health. 

The team now hopes to expand its research with more extensive trials that include patients from more diverse socioeconomic and ethnic groups, suffering from advanced cancer-related psychiatric and existential distress.

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