Story at a glance

  • A group of cancer patients were given a single dose of synthetic psilocybin in 2016, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, to determine if the drug could ease their symptoms.
  • Some 80 percent of participants said they were experiencing improvements years later.
  • Researchers called the results “mind-boggling.”

A single dose of the psychedelic compound found in so-called magic mushrooms has eased anxiety and depression for a group of cancer patients for more than four years, according to new research. 

In a 2016 study, a group of cancer patients were given a dose of synthetic psilocybin in order to determine whether the drug could help with symptoms of cancer-related anxiety and depression. 

At the time, the psilocybin appeared to work as 80 percent of the patients reported their symptoms faded, and the effects lasted up to six months. But now a new study suggests a more long-lasting effect. 

ADVERTISEMENT

The new study, published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, followed up with 15 of the 29 patients who received the one-time treatment of psilocybin, and it found 80 percent were still experiencing significant improvements in anxiety and depression four years later. The participants credited the changes to the psychedelic therapy. 

“I thought that when the chemo ended, I would celebrate but instead, I went into a tailspin. Even though my prognosis was really excellent, I was worried about a relapse,” Dinah Bazer, a participant who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, told NBC News.

Bazer participated in the study and said she went through a period of six months with no anxiety at all. She says years later some of her social anxiety has returned, but she has noticed improvements related to her worries about cancer. 

“What is permanent is that I don’t have anxiety about cancer. Not only about my cancer returning, but how I viewed my reoccurence when it did happen,” Bazer said. 

Dr. Stephen Ross, director of addiction psychiatry at New York University’s Langone Medical Center who led the 2016 study and co-authored the follow-up, told NBC “psilocybin-assisted therapy appears to both work rapidly and have a sustained benefit for years. If other studies support that, the implication is potentially huge for cancer patients.” 

Up to 40 percent of cancer patients develop cancer-related anxiety and depression, according to the study. 

ADVERTISEMENT

The study’s authors noted that most patients who participated were in full or partial remission, and it is possible they would be feeling good even if they had never received psilocybin. 

Researchers aren’t exactly sure how psilocybin works against anxiety and depression, but say there is evidence psilocybin alters activity in the area of the brain that turns on when people engage in self-reflection. In people with depression or anxiety, that same network can be hyperactive and associated with worrying. 

The drug has long been used recreationally for its hallucinogenic effects, which alters users’ perceptions and their own thoughts and feelings. 

Published on Jan 28, 2020