A 2016 study conducted by researchers affiliated with the New York University School of Medicine suggests that psilocybin in conjunction with psychotherapy can immediately and continuously reduce anxiety and depression in patients with life-threatening cancer. This study found that a single moderate dose of psilocybin was effective at reducing anxiety, depression, and existential distress while increasing spiritual well-being and quality of life. These findings are important because there are currently no FDA approved pharmacotherapies for cancer-related psychological stress. Additionally, this study implies that one dose of psilocybin in conjunction with psychotherapy is effective at decreasing anxiety and depression, as opposed to other medications that require long-term usage and are not always effective. (Ross 2016)
Stephen Ross is the principal researcher that conducted this study. He is associated with the New York University School of Medicine, along with Anthony Bossis, Jeffrey Guss, Tara Malone, Barry Cohen, Sarah E Mennenga, Alexander Belser, Krystallia Kalliontzi, James Babb, Zhe Su, Patricia Corby, and Brian L Schmidt. One author, Gabrielle Agin-Liebes, is associated with Palo Alto University. This study was not fully funded by one organization, but rather supported by grants from the Heffter Research Institute, the RiverStyx Foundation, and the New York University-Health and Hospitals Corporation, as well as various individual donations. The multiplicity of funding contributes to the legitimacy of this study by showing that multiple groups are interested in this research and trust the methods of the study enough to financially contribute. The study was conducted in the BlueStone Center for Clinical Research at the NYU College of Dentistry. Data were collected from 18 February 2009 to 22 October 2014 and the analysis was conducted from 3 November 2014 to 11 December 2015. The study was published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology on November 30th, 2016. (Ross 2016)
Research into psychedelic substances largely ceased in 1970 after the passage of the Controlled Substance Act in the United States, which classified serotoninergic psychedelic drugs such as psilocybin as a Schedule 1 controlled substance. (Ross 2016) However, scientists have begun to explore the medical application of these substances through experimental studies. One study found that psilocybin therapy generally increased self-reported levels of openness, extraversion, and conscientiousness. The therapy also decreased self-reported levels of depression, neuroticism, and vulnerability. (Erritzoe 2018) This study echoes the results of the Ross study as well as demonstrates that psychedelic therapy is beneficial not just to those with mental illness, but for healthy members of the general population as well.
The Ross study was conducted to determine whether psilocybin is an effective drug to combat the psychological stress of a cancer diagnosis. The researchers expected that psychedelic therapy would have a net-positive outcome for their participants. They found that psilocybin, in conjunction with psychotherapy, can immediately and continuously reduce anxiety and depression in patients with life-threatening cancer. This study found that a single dose of psilocybin intermingled with ongoing therapy can reduce the negative emotions that patients have regarding their death. The reduction in negative emotions is immediate, and the effect is sustained well after the experience. The researchers in this study were responding to the large body of research that indicates that psychedelic substances can enhance positive cognition, emotion, behavior, and spirituality. (Bogenschutz 2016) In addition, the researchers called attention to the lack of psychoactive medication available to help cancer patients in dealing with anxiety and depression. The researchers also pointed out that their study is somewhat novel, being the first to find positive prolonged results from a single dose of psilocybin.
The Ross experiment involved a pool of one-hundred-and-eight human individuals pre-screened, of which forty-two gave informed consent to consume psilocybin. Of these forty-two, twenty-nine were chosen and randomly assigned to take a single dose of either psilocybin or niacin. Niacin served as the control in this experiment, as it is not psychoactive. This randomized, double-blind study incorporated a crossover seven weeks after the initial dose, in which the participants took the substance they did not take the first time. Primary outcome variables- anxiety and depression -were assessed prior to the crossover. Secondary outcome variables, such as distress, spirituality, and quality of life, were measured before and after the crossover through standardized emotional tests in which the participants self-reported their moods. The researchers did not state that their methods were based on a previous study but their experiment was conducted in a very scientifically sound way. Participants were initially psychologically screened to minimize adverse reactions. For example, an individual with a personal or family history of schizophrenia would not be viable for this study, as use of psychedelic substances can exacerbate this illness. From this group, twenty-nine were randomly chosen. The study was double-blind, and half of the participants initially received niacin instead of psilocybin in order to act as the control group. The psilocybin was synthetically produced in a lab, and dosage was calculated based on body weight (0.3 mg/kg). (Ross 2016) This method of consumption is much more accurate than ingesting mushrooms, which contain a variable amount of psilocybin. The authors admitted no flaws, limitations, or bias in their study, implying that it was conducted in an ideal manner. (Ross 2016) The study could improve by increasing the sample size, so that the experiment could be more representative of the general population. Overall, the study was conducted ethically, and the methods are justified and repeatable.
In conclusion, this study found that a one-time dose of psilocybin in conjunction with psychotherapy was effective at decreasing symptoms of anxiety and depression in patients with life-threatening cancer. There are currently no FDA approved pharmacotherapies for dealing with cancer-related psychological stress, which means psilocybin could potentially fulfill this need. Additionally, no adverse effects from the psilocybin experience were found in this study. (Ross) The results of this study indicate that psychedelic therapy has the potential to improve the user’s mental health in a significant way, and shows how psychedelic therapy can be used to help people that are truly suffering from mental illness.
Bogenschutz, Michael P., and Matthew W. Johnson. “Classic Hallucinogens in the Treatment of Addictions.” Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry, vol. 64, 2016, pp. 250–258., doi:10.1016/j.pnpbp.2015.03.002.
Erritzoe D, Roseman L, Nour MM, Maclean K, Kaelen M, Nutt DJ, Carhart-Harris RL. Effects of psilocybin therapy on personality structure. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica. 2018 [accessed 2020 Jan 25];138(5):368–378. doi:10.1111/acps.12904.
Ross S, Bossis A, Guss J, Agin-Liebes G, Malone T, Cohen B, Mennenga SE, Belser A, Kalliontzi K, Babb J, et al. Rapid and sustained symptom reduction following psilocybin treatment for anxiety and depression in patients with life-threatening cancer: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of Psychopharmacology. 2016;30(12):1165–1180. doi:10.1177/0269881116675512.
For Further Reading
Carhart-Harris, R. L., et al. “Neural Correlates of the Psychedelic State as Determined by FMRI Studies with Psilocybin.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 109, no. 6, 2012, pp. 2138–2143., doi:10.1073/pnas.1119598109.
Carhart-Harris, Robin L, et al. “Psilocybin with Psychological Support for Treatment-Resistant Depression: an Open-Label Feasibility Study.” The Lancet Psychiatry, vol. 3, no. 7, 2016, pp. 619–627., doi:10.1016/s2215-0366(16)30065-7.
Johnson MW, Garcia-Romeu A, Griffiths RR. Long-term follow-up of psilocybin-facilitated smoking cessation. The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse. 2016 [accessed 2020 Jan 25];43(1):55–60. doi:10.3109/00952990.2016.1170135.