FEB 08, 2020 10:20 AM PST

Magic mushrooms help cancer patients' depression

A follow-up to a study originally published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology in 2016 reports the long-term benefits of a one-time, single-dose treatment of psilocybin to cancer patients. Psilocybin is a compound in psychedelic mushrooms that has been shown to have positive effects on emotional health when paired with psychotherapy. The follow-up to the original study was published recently online and suggests that psilocybin produced not only immediate improvements in anxiety and depression in cancer patients but also improvements sustained over 3 and 4.5 years.

A cancer diagnosis can unsurprisingly lead many to feelings of demoralization and hopelessness, often resulting in anxiety and depression. Global statistics estimate that almost 40% of people will receive a cancer diagnosis at some point. Of those, a third of them will subsequently develop anxiety, depression, and other forms of distress. Because quality of life is so important for cancer patients receiving treatment, the results from this study have significant implications for alternative options for treating cancer-related anxiety and depression.

The study comes from researchers at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, where the initial trial assessed the effects of a one-time, single-dose psilocybin treatment years later. They concluded that of the participants in the trial who met the criteria for clinically significant antidepressant or anxiolytic responses at the 4.5-year follow-up, “71-100% 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,” according to Science Daily.

"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 Stephen Ross, MD, who led the 2016 parent study. "This approach has the potential to produce a paradigm shift in the psychological and existential care of patients with cancer, especially those with a terminal illness." Ross is an associate professor of psychiatry in the Department of Psychiatry at NYU Langone Health.

For more than half of cancer patients, antidepressants are ineffective. According to Ross, they do nothing to combat feelings of existential distress and death anxiety, symptoms which often are related to a hastened desire for death and increased suicidality. Psilocybin could offer an alternative treatment method.

So how does psilocybin work? While experts are still figuring out the way the compound functions, they say that they think it makes the brain “more flexible and receptive to new ideas and thought patterns.” Science Daily reports additionally that, “Previous research indicates that the drug targets a network of the brain, the default mode network, which becomes activated when we engage in self-reflection and mind wandering, and which helps to create our sense of self and sense of coherent narrative identity. In patients with anxiety and depression, this network becomes hyperactive and is associated with rumination, worry, and rigid thinking. Psilocybin appears to acutely shift activity in this network and helps people to take a more broadened perspective on their behaviors and lives.”

The researchers plan to continue their ongoing research, expanding their investigation to consider broader populations in their trials. "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," says Ross.

Sources: Journal of Psychopharmacology, Science Daily

About the Author
  • Kathryn is a curious world-traveller interested in the intersection between nature, culture, history, and people. She has worked for environmental education non-profits and is a Spanish/English interpreter.
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