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Cancer, Anxiety and Psilocybin


Just one dose of psilocybin, the active ingredient in what are commonly known as psychedelic mushrooms, significantly eased anxiety and depression in late-stage cancer patients for up to six months, according to two new, randomized clinical studies. The research, from NYU Langone and Johns Hopkins is published in the December issue of the Journal of Psychopharmacology along with a number of commentaries, including one from Tufts Medical Center.

Paul Summergrad, MD is a psychiatrist at Tufts Medical Center.“It is very rare to see a treatment in almost any area of clinical medicine that is as apparently effective as psilocybin was in these studies,” explained Paul Summergrad, MD, Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at Tufts Medical Center and author of the Journal commentary. “The response was rapid and enduring.”

The first study involved 29 cancer patients who received doses of psilocybin and niacin (vitamin B3). Researchers found 83 percent of those who had psilocybin first met criteria for anti-depressant response seven weeks after the dose (vs. 14 percent who had niacin). The second study involving 51 cancer patients compared a high dose of psilocybin to a very low dose of the drug. After five weeks, 92 percent in the high-dose group had a clinically significant response. Remarkably, both studies found that even six months post treatment, 60-80 percent of patients continued to show significant decreases in depressed mood and anxiety.

“There is a high degree of understandable existential stress, as well as anxiety and mood disorders when you are facing a terminal illness. While we do have psychotherapies and pharmacotherapies that are effective, there are a lot of people who do not respond fully,” said Dr. Summergrad. “New treatments are needed.”

But whether or not psilocybin pans out will depend on future studies and careful work, he says.

“If we were talking about a brand new medication, there might be more excitement over these findings. But this drug has a complicated history,” said Dr. Summergrad. “Psilocybin has a history of misuse, and has been associated with people having adverse reactions including transient experiences of psychosis. These studies need to be replicated and the findings, reproduced, before further consideration of clinical used outside of a research setting is contemplated.”

Read coverage of the studies in STAT.

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