New studies just found psychedelics help terminal cancer patients and could be the new wonder drugs for psychiatry – they shouldn't be ignored

The active ingredient in magic mushrooms was given to terminal cancer patients: 80 per cent had immediate reductions in anxiety and depression which persisted for six months or longer. We think that's because psychedelics can change entrenched ways of thinking that people might otherwise not be able to tackle on their own

Amanda Feilding
Thursday 01 December 2016 12:03 GMT
Brain scans showing the effect on LSD on people's brains from a study earlier this year
Brain scans showing the effect on LSD on people's brains from a study earlier this year

Today, in a ground-breaking development in the field of psychiatry, two new studies were published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology showing that a single dose of psilocybin – a powerful, naturally occurring psychedelic compound found in “magic mushrooms” – can radically improve the well-being and positivity of terminally ill cancer patients.

The research, completed at NYU and Johns Hopkins University, gave participants diagnosed with advanced cancer a moderate to high dose of psilocybin in a controlled environment with psychological support from highly qualified guides. Results demonstrated immediate and marked reductions in their levels of anxiety and depression that, remarkably, still persisted 6 months later in 80 per cent of the participants.

Presently, end-of-life care consists of supportive counselling and pharmaceutical treatments, such as antidepressants, to quell feelings of isolation, depression and anxiety commonly associated with a diagnosis of terminal illness. However most medications, along with psychotherapy, can take months to start working and are not effective for all patients. Commonly prescribed drugs such as benzodiazepines may be addictive and can have other unpleasant side effects.

The approach highlighted today, known as “psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy” makes use of the “magic mushroom” ingredient psilocybin. Various studies using this approach over the last decade have shown that giving people psychedelics, with the support of psychotherapy, can provide fundamental and enduring changes much quicker than counselling alone. As a result, in recent years, psilocybin has received increasing attention in the clinical and scientific research communities.

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Earlier this year, the Beckley/Imperial Psilocybin and Depression study showed that two low to medium doses of psilocybin reduced depressive symptoms in 67 per cent of participants, with 42 per cent remaining depression-free after three months. Participants in this study had all suffered from depression for at least 18 years and been completely unresponsive to any other forms of treatment. Next year, a larger, placebo-controlled study will be conducted to verify these findings.

And that’s not all. In addition to the focus of psychedelic-assisted therapy for depression and anxiety, the Johns Hopkins team also conducted a pilot study investigating smoking addiction treatment with psilocybin. Results showed 80 per cent of the smokers still hadn’t had a cigarette at the six month check-up.

Most interestingly, the research showed that people were most likely to successfully stop smoking if they reported having mystical experiences on the days they were treated with psychedelics. These experiences were variously described by people as “mystical”, “spiritual”, “ego-dissolution” and “feelings of oneness”. It seems that when people reported these feelings, it correlated with a transformation of previously entrenched thoughts patterns that made them keep repeating the same negative habits."

It is possible that it is this aspect of the experience that enables cancer patients to alleviate the anguish associated with their diagnosis. “In some ways, I feel that I am better equipped to deal with what life throws at me, and to appreciate the good things. I am grateful to be alive in a way that I didn’t know I could be grateful,” said Eddie Marritz, a participant in the NYU study. “It’s a kind of gratitude that’s ineffable. I am much more focused on this moment.”

In 1998, I started the Beckley Foundation in order to investigate how certain psychoactive compounds can alter consciousness in ways that can provide transformational and therapeutic benefits to individuals suffering from a wide range of common psychiatric conditions. Earlier this year, we finally undertook the first brain-imaging study to investigate how LSD has its effects in the brain. These findings correlated with the findings from our psilocybin studies, and have begun to build our understanding of how these compounds alter blood supply and connectivity in ways that can help change fixed patterns that underlie many debilitating illnesses such as depression, anxiety, addiction, OCD, PTSD, and others.

The research being done with terminal cancer patients adds to the growing collection of evidence of psychedelics’ therapeutic potential and indicates a significant development of an exciting new model of mental health treatment. Scientists are discovering that psychedelics change consciousness in a unique way that has the tremendous potential to revolutionise the field of psychiatry.

“The most interesting and remarkable finding is that a single dose of psilocybin, which lasts four to six hours, produced enduring decreases in depression and anxiety symptoms, and this may represent a fascinating new model for treating some psychiatric conditions,” said Dr Roland Griffiths, lead investigator at Johns Hopkins.

As larger Phase III clinical trials are conducted, further investigating the positive effects psychedelics like psilocybin can have on mental illnesses, it’s clear that this new model could help countless people worldwide who are seeking a long-term solution for their psychological suffering.

Amanda Feilding is the Executive Director of the Beckley Foundation

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