Two New Studies Find Psilocybin Relieves Cancer Patients’ Anxiety and Depression

A single dose of the banned psychedelic led to large and lasting psychological improvements.


Martin Garwood/NHPA/Photoshot/Newscom

Two studies published today in the journal Psychopharmacology indicate that a single dose of psilocybin, the main active ingredient in "magic mushrooms," has large and lasting effects on anxiety and depression in cancer patients. The research, which is consistent with earlier studies suggesting the psychological benefits of psilocybin and LSD for people who are gravely ill, is an important step in the medical and legal rehabilitation of a drug that has been banned since 1970.

Both studies used a randomized, double-blind, crossover design in which subjects either took psilocybin in the first session and a placebo in the second or vice versa. To help maintain the mystery of who got what when, both studies used active placebos: niacin in one case and a low dose of psilocybin in the other.

One study, conducted by researchers at New York University, involved 29 patients who received either psilocybin or niacin in conjunction with psychotherapy. "For each of the six primary outcome measures," NYU psychiatrist Stephen Ross and his co-authors report, "there were significant differences between the experimental and control groups (prior to the crossover at 7 weeks post-dose 1) with the psilocybin group (compared to the active control) demonstrating immediate, substantial, and sustained (up to 7 weeks post-dosing) clinical benefits in terms of reduction of anxiety and depression symptoms. The magnitude of differences between the psilocybin and control groups…was large across the primary outcome measures, assessed at 1 day/2 weeks/6 weeks/7 weeks post-dose 1."

These improvements persisted for at least six-and-a-half months after the psilocybin dose, when the final follow-up was completed. "Single moderate-dose psilocybin, in conjunction with psychotherapy, produced rapid, robust, and sustained clinical benefits in terms of reduction of anxiety and depression in patients with life-threatening cancer," Ross et al. write. "This pharmacological finding is novel in psychiatry in terms of a single dose of a medication leading to immediate anti-depressant and anxiolytic effects with enduring…clinical benefits." The researchers conclude that "the psilocybin-induced mystical experience mediated the anxiolytic and anti-depressant effects of psilocybin," since the intensity of that experience was correlated with the magnitude of the effects.

"It is unclear from the data whether the sustained benefits in clinical outcomes were due to psilocybin alone or some interactive effect of psilocybin plus the targeted psychotherapy," Ross et al. say. "Future research would be necessary to separate out the various therapeutic contributions of psilocybin versus psychotherapy." But the other psilocybin study reported in Psychopharmacology today, which was conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins University and involved 51 cancer patients, shows that the psychedelic can have similar effects without psychotherapy.

Johns Hopkins psychiatrist Roland Griffiths and his colleagues used a design similar to the NUY study's (two sessions, one with a high dose of psilocybin and one with a very low dose) but skipped the psychotherapy. "When administered under psychologically supportive, double-blind conditions, a single dose of psilocybin produced substantial and enduring decreases in depressed mood and anxiety along with increases in quality of life and decreases in death anxiety in patients with a life-threatening cancer diagnosis," Griffiths et al. report. "Ratings by patients themselves, clinicians, and community observers suggested these effects endured at least 6 months. The overall rate of clinical response at 6 months on clinician-rated depression and anxiety was 78% and 83%, respectively."

These striking results inspired fear as well as hope. In an interview with The New York Times, William Breitbart, chairman of the psychiatry department at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, worried that improving the lives of cancer patients might be just the first step. "Medical marijuana got its foot in the door by making the appeal that 'cancer patients are suffering, they're near death, so for compassionate purposes, let's make it available,' " he said. "And then you're able to extend this drug to other purposes." Which would be terrible, right?

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20 responses to “Two New Studies Find Psilocybin Relieves Cancer Patients’ Anxiety and Depression

  1. Takeaway: Psychotherapy not particularly effective on cancer induced anxiety and depression.

    1. “Psychotherapists Less Useful than Bowl of Mushrooms, Study Says”

      “Stop Paying for Therapy: One Weird Trick to Save You Thousands.”

  2. the main active ingredient in “magic mushrooms,” has large and lasting effects on anxiety and depression in cancer patients

    But what about people that are just simply anxious or depressed? Does it work then?

    1. +1 Tax Season

    2. No. Take 2mg of lorazepam every day until you can’t stop without dying. Prohobitionist approved!

      1. I’m pro-ho exhibitionists too!

  3. Pharmaceutical companies, psychotherapists and drug warriors must band together to nip this in the bud.


    2. +1 food of the gods

    3. Not the cap?

    4. You need to leaf this subject alone or they’ll be stalking you.

    5. There is too much fun in that fungi.

  4. No, no, no, no. You druggies need to think of the children.

  5. Our prohibitionist overlords consider that, if you have cancer, you probably deserve to have pain and anxiety because you are a bad person. Besides, we already have great drugs for anxiety. They are highly addictive, and if you take them for a long time and suddenly stop, you are likely to die an unpleasant death, but at least they don’t make you hallucinate. Well, until you stop taking them.

    1. suicidal thoughts included free of charge. Enjoy.

  6. Did either study indicate a significant difference regarding morbidity/mortality?

    Not taking the prohibitionists side here, but if all we’re talking about is making patients feel better, subsidizing their healthcare costs has proven effective as well.

    1. Good question. My sister-in-law had lung cancer (8 years ago?). She is a fighter and she is now cancer-free and a lung short. Would feeling better taken some of the fight out of her?

      1. I suspect that sometimes the fighting itself is such a drain that plain old relaxing rest is better than a lot of the medicine.

  7. I’ d be interested in what effect the niacin had. Presumably it was to simulate the hot feeling psilocybin gives, but maybe it has some anxiolytic or antidepressant effect itself. I’ve taken this week to giving myself a niacin flush to feel warmer in this cold weather.

  8. Thanks for sharing this informational article. It has been seen that many cancer patients deals with anxiety, depression, memory loss issues as the commonly used chemotherapy drug causes healthy brain cells to die off long after treatment has ended and may be one of the underlying biological causes of the cognitive side effects that many cancer patients experience. There are many patients who spend there rest of the life in a memory care service morris county NJ after surviving from cancer.

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