September 07, 2010
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
"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
psycho-spiritual 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
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
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
They were interviewed after the six-hour
session and over the next six months to assess the outcome of the
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.