A Single Dose of The Compound Found in ‘Magic Mushrooms’ Improves Anxiety and Depression in Cancer Patients for Years

It’s not uncommon for cancer patients to experience anxiety and/or depression. In a follow-up of a 2016 study, researchers found that a one-time dose of psilocybin, in combination with psychotherapy, may provide significant long-term relief for cancer-related psychiatric distress.

Psilocybin is a hallucinogenic found in many species of mushrooms; a psilocybin mushroom is often referred to as a “magic mushroom,” and its psychiatric benefits are not a new discovery.

“Adding to evidence dating back as early as the 1950s, our findings strongly suggest that psilocybin therapy is a promising means of improving the emotional, psychological, and spiritual well-being of patients with life-threatening cancer,” Stephen Ross, MD, lead author of the first study and an associate professor of psychiatry in the Department of Psychiatry at NYU Langone Health, said in a press release. “This approach has the potential to produce a paradigm shift in the psychological and existential care of patients with cancer, especially those with terminal illness.”

It’s estimated that close to 40% of men and women will be diagnosed with cancer during their lifetime, and about one in every four cancer patients has clinical depression. According to Dr. Ross, there is a significant need for alternative options to treat mental health conditions in cancer patients.

Original Psilocybin Trial and Follow-up

Both studies were published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology. The original trial was a double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover trial that randomized 29 patients with cancer-related anxiety and depression to receive, in combination with psychotherapy, either psilocybin 0.3 mg/kg or niacin. The main outcomes were anxiety and depression at seven weeks, before the crossover. Psilocybin was associated with immediate and lasting improvements in anxiety and depression, as well as reductions in disease-associated demoralization and hopelessness and improvements in spiritual well-being and quality of life. The authors observed significant benefits for depression, existential distress, quality of life, and attitudes toward death after 6.5 months.

The present study was a long-term follow-up study in which all 16 living patients from the first trial were invited to participate; 15 agreed and were followed up after an average 3.2 and 4.5 years following the psilocybin dose. At both follow-ups, the patients presented sustained improvements in anxiety, depression, hopelessness, demoralization, and death anxiety.

“At the second (4.5 year) follow-up approximately 60–80% of participants met criteria for clinically significant antidepressant or anxiolytic responses,” the authors further reported. “Participants overwhelmingly (71–100%) attributed positive life changes to the psilocybin-assisted therapy experience and rated it among the most personally meaningful and spiritually significant experiences of their lives.”

The researchers acknowledged that the present study is limited by the parent study’s crossover design. Nonetheless, they are hopeful that their findings will have significant implications for psychiatric outcomes in cancer patients.

“These results may shed light on how the positive effects of a single dose of psilocybin persist for so long,” said lead author of the present study and coauthor of the 2016 study, Gabby Agin-Liebes, a PhD candidate at Palo Alto University in California. “The drug seems to facilitate a deep, meaningful experience that stays with a person and can fundamentally change his or her mindset and outlook.”