Psychedelic, “magic” mushrooms appear to significantly ease anxiety and depression among cancer patients, according to two small studies.
The double-blind studies were done at Johns Hopkins and New York Universities and found large doses of psilocybin, the hallucinogenic compound found in certain mushroom species, can provide relief for up to six months.
"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," says Roland Griffiths, professor of behavioral biology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Despite the apparent benefits of magic mushrooms, researchers caution that the study was done in “tightly controlled” conditions in a research setting and in the presence of medically trained monitors.
The Hopkins study, which was done concurrently with scientists from New York University, looked at only 51 patients, while NYU tested 29.
According to the Hopkins study, “psilocybin decreased clinician - and patient-rated depressed mood, anxiety and death anxiety, and increased quality of life, life meaning and optimism,” according to a news release.
And the benefits appeared to last at least six months, with 80 percent of participants reporting decreases in depression and anxiety and 60 percent reporting normal levels of “symptom remission.”
Even more, 83 percent, reported “increases in well-being or life satisfaction.”
About two-thirds of the participants reported the experience “as one of the top five meaningful experiences in their lives, and about 70 percent reported the experience as one of the top five spiritually significant lifetime events.”
Dr. Griffiths added that traditional means of helping cancer patients with mental illness “can take weeks or even months, isn't always effective, and in the case of some drugs, such as benzodiazepines, may have addictive and other troubling side effects.”
"A life-threatening cancer diagnosis can be psychologically challenging, with anxiety and depression as very common symptoms," says Griffiths. "People with this kind of existential anxiety often feel hopeless and are worried about the meaning of life and what happens upon death."
There were some negative effects, according to Griffiths, who said 15 percent of study participants experienced nausea or vomiting. Some, about one in three, experienced “psychological discomfort” after taking the high dose. The same number saw a temporary increase in blood pressure. Others reported headaches.
"Before beginning the study, it wasn't clear to me that this treatment would be helpful, since cancer patients may experience profound hopelessness in response to their diagnosis, which is often followed by multiple surgeries and prolonged chemotherapy," says Griffiths. "I could imagine that cancer patients would receive psilocybin, look into the existential void and come out even more fearful. However, the positive changes in attitudes, moods and behavior that we documented in healthy volunteers were replicated in cancer patients."
Both studies were published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.