DEC 03, 2016 8:50 AM PST

Cancer Patients with Depression Find 'Magic' in Mushrooms

WRITTEN BY: Xuan Pham
Scientists revisit magic mushrooms as a potent medical treatment for anxiety and depression in cancer patients. The two newest studies on this decade-old idea report that a single dose of psilocybin can significantly help cancer patients cope with their life-threatening diagnoses. 
 

Psychedelic drugs like magic mushrooms and LSD are often associated with recreational use or abuse. But recent studies suggest perhaps the drugs can be used to counter the debilitating effects of addiction, anxiety, and depression.
 
Psilocybin is a compound in some mushrooms that can induce euphoria and heightened sensory perceptions. While the psychedelic effects of these drugs are well-known, studies suggest the same effects may lead to curbed symptoms for patients with mental disorders. For example, some studies have shown that psilocybin can reduce addiction to smoking and even alcohol. Other studies show the psychedelic drugs reduce anxiety, particularly in cancer patients.
 
Some researchers believe the drugs activate new or otherwise hidden connections in the brain, which facilitate the patients to overcome their psychological and emotional challenges.
 
Indeed, this was the line of investigation for the new studies by New York University and Johns Hopkins University. Cancer patients suffering from anxiety and depression were given a moderate dose of psilocybin in a controlled therapy-style setting. Then, after some hours wherein patients had time to experience the effects of the psychedelics, the psychiatrist would come back and assess changes in the patients’ mental health.
 

The shift from anxiety and depression to optimism and happiness seemed immediate and sustained: over 80 percent of treated patients reported to have conquered their debilitating mental illness.
 
“The cloud of doom seemed to just lift," said Sherry Marcy, a participant in one of the studies who was diagnosed a life-threatening endometrial cancer in 2010. "I got back in touch with my family and kids, and my wonder at life. Before, I was sitting alone at home, and I couldn't move … This study made a huge difference, and it's persisted."
 
Another participant, an ovarian cancer patient, described the vivid hallucinations as giving her a means to squash her fears and anxiety. “I visualized my fear as a physical mass in my body, i screamed at it and told it to get the fuck out, and it was gone. These fear and anxieties were still gone.”
 
"A life-threatening cancer diagnosis can be psychologically challenging, with anxiety and depression as very common symptoms," said Roland Griffiths, a professor of behavioral biology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "People with this kind of existential anxiety often feel hopeless and are worried about the meaning of life and what happens upon death. These results show [psilocybin] can produce deeply meaningful experiences and attribute positive changes in mood and behavior.”
 
However powerful, it’s important to remember that the psychedelic alone is not enough. Rather, researchers attribute the positive effects to a combination of psilocybin, and the appropriate environment and psychotherapy.
 
Additional sources: Live Science, Popular Science
About the Author
  • I am a human geneticist, passionate about telling stories to make science more engaging and approachable. Find more of my writing at the Hopkins BioMedical Odyssey blog and at TheGeneTwist.com.
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