TUESDAY, Sept. 7 (HealthDay News) -- A controlled dose of the
main ingredient in hallucinogenic mushrooms appears to reduce
anxiety and lift spirits in people battling advanced cancer,
In a small pilot study, the compound psilocybin appeared to be
safe, with no participants reporting a "bad trip," said study
author Dr. Charles Grob. His research was published online Sept. 6
and will appear in the January 2011 print issue of the
Archives of General Psychiatry.
In fact, the trips tended to be good, with patients and their
families reporting improvements up to six months after their
single-dose experience with the substance.
But it took four years to get the funding and necessary
approvals for the trial, even though it only involved a dozen
patients (all with advanced cancer). And it's been 35 years since a
similar study was conducted, in the heyday of medical research into
hallucinogens in the 1950s and 1960s, before cultural and political
forces moved to shut the field down.
This raises the question of if and when psilocybin and other
hallucinogens will reach patients who might benefit from it.
"It's slow going justifying this particular application and the data are not overwhelming," said Keith A. Young, vice chair for research in the department of psychiatry and behavioral science at Texas A&M Health Science Center and core leader at the VA Center of Excellence for Research on Returning War Veterans. "This just indicates that there might be room for additional study. . . It seems to be that other approaches might be just as good, for instance a spiritual retreat. These particular results probably warrant more study, but are not overpowering."
Added Dr. Amy Abernethy, director of the Duke University Cancer
Care Research Program in Durham, N.C., "We're judicious and, if
anything, a bit timid in getting the work done."
The participants in the study acted as their own "controls" and
in two separate sessions received either a placebo or a "moderate"
dose of psilocybin (0.2 milligrams per kilogram of body weight),
both in capsule form.
In addition to feeling calmer and happier, the men and women in
the trial said they felt a closer connection to friends and family
members, and were better able to address end-of-life issues.
Unlike previous trials, these participants did not report any
decrease in pain, although the researchers pointed out that a
second dose might result in improvements.
"They suggested in the paper that it might be better to have more than one treatment and I would concur," Young said. "I would think it might take a couple of treatments to get any lasting psychological or spiritual-type good out of this."
Abernethy said: "We know that with some people with advanced
life-threatening illness, there is very truly a substantial
existential component and importance and need for meaning-making in
life, and that until people start making that transition they can
be very, very distressed. It can be hard to get back to the
business-of-life closures and other things you need to do at the
end of life. This kind of intervention [may] allow people time and
space and extended cognitive ability to reflect on life and see it
in a different way, make that transition and then get back into a
more relaxed space and get back to the business of living.
"Being in the business of living is about doing what is important and meaningful to you every day even if you don't have many days left, focusing on things like saying goodbye to loved ones, which can be hard to do if you're distressed," she added.
Psilocybin has already been shown to be safe in individuals with
obsessive-compulsive disorder, and Grob, who is professor of
psychiatry at Harbor UCLA Medical Center in Torrance, Calif., would
like to extend this protocol to a larger group of patients using
higher doses and perhaps adding a second treatment. He'd also like
to do studies in chronic alcoholics and in people with Asperger's
"We'd be looking at social anxiety to see if individuals had an improved capacity to engage in normative socialization, an improved capacity for empathic experience," Grob said. "That's an entirely different kind of study than we did with this one but I think there might be potential."
Grob and another study author serve on the board of directors of
the Heffter Research Institute in Santa Fe, N.M., which provided
funding for the study.
U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse has more on
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