In the first human study of its kind to be published in more than 35 years, researchers found psilocybin, an hallucinogen which occurs naturally in "magic mushrooms," can safely improve the moods of patients with advanced-stage cancer and anxiety, according to an article published online September 6 in the Archives of General Psychiatry.
"In recent years, there has been a growing awareness that the psychological, spiritual and existential crises often encountered by patients with cancer and their families need to be addressed more vigorously," the authors write as background information in the article. "From the late 1950s to the early 1970s, research was carried out exploring the use of hallucinogens to treat the existential anxiety, despair and isolation often associated with advanced-stage cancer. Those studies described critically ill individuals undergoing psychospiritual epiphanies, often with powerful and sustained improvement in mood and anxiety as well as diminished need for narcotic pain medication."
Patients enrolled in the study at the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center (LA BioMed) demonstrated improvement of mood and reduction of anxiety up to six months after undergoing treatment, with significance reached at the six-month point on the "Beck Depression Inventory" and at one and three months on the "State-Trait Anxiety Inventory." A third screening tool, the "Profile of Mood States," identified mood improvement after treatment that approached but did not reach significance.
"We are working with a patient population that often does not respond well to conventional treatments," said Charles S. Grob, MD, an LA BioMed principal investigator who led the research team. "Following their treatments with psilocybin, the patients and their families reported benefit from the use of this hallucinogen in reducing their anxiety. This study shows psilocybin can be administered safely, and that further investigation of hallucinogens should be pursued to determine their potential benefits."
"Political and cultural pressures forced an end to these studies in the 1970s," said Dr. Grob. "We were able to revive this research under strict federal supervision and demonstrate that this is a field of study with great promise for alleviating anxiety and other psychiatric symptoms."
The LA BioMed study is the first research publication in several decades to examine the hallucinogen treatment model with advanced-cancer anxiety. Twelve volunteers, ages 36 to 58, with advanced-stage cancer and anxiety were given a moderate dose of 0.2 mg/kg of psilocybin and, on a separate occasion, a placebo. Neither the volunteers nor the researchers monitoring them knew whether they'd been given a placebo or psilocybin.
The two experimental sessions took place several weeks apart in a hospital clinical research unit at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, where Dr. Grob is a professor of psychiatry. The research volunteers were monitored for the six hours following their dose. The volunteers were encouraged to lie in bed, wear eye shades and listen to music during the first few hours after ingesting the medication or the placebo. They were interviewed after the six-hour session and over the next six months to assess the outcome of the treatment.
This study was funded by the Heffter Research Institute, the Betsy Gordon Foundation and the Nathan Cummings Foundation (with the support and encouragement of James R. Cummings). Infrastructural support for this study was provided via grant M01-RR00425 from the National Institutes of Health for the General Clinical Research Unit at LA BioMed.