Psilocybin may help cancer patients with depression and anxiety for years

A study hints that a hallucinogen could reshape how people cope with hard diagnoses

patient receiving chemotherapy

After a dose of psilocybin, people had less anxiety and depression related to their cancer diagnoses in the short term, and the improvement seems to endure.

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After taking a compound found in magic mushrooms, people with cancer had less anxiety and depression, even years later, a new study suggests.

The evidence isn’t strong enough yet to pin these lasting improvements on the hallucinatory episode itself, as opposed to other life changes. But the findings leave open the possibility that the compound, called psilocybin, may be able to profoundly reshape how people handle distress and fear (SN: 9/26/06).

Research published in 2016 suggested that a dose of psilocybin in combination with therapy could quickly ease anxiety and depression in people with cancer. But scientists wanted to know whether these effects lasted.

Surveys conducted about three and 4½ years after the psilocybin dose showed that a majority of the 15 people still had fewer signs of anxiety and depression compared with before they took the compound, the team reports January 28 in the Journal of Psychopharmacology. (By the second follow-up, about a third of the participants still had active cancer; the rest were in partial or complete remission.)

All the participants said they had “moderate,” “strong” or “extreme” positive changes in their behavior that they attribute to their experience, which many described as one of the most personally meaningful events of their lives.

Everyone in the initial study, which took place at New York University, received psilocybin, though at slightly different times to allow comparisons of its immediate effects. Without comparing these people’s long-term shifts with the experiences of people who didn’t receive psilocybin, it’s impossible to tease out its effect.

Still, these psilocybin experiences hint that the hallucinogen could be useful in helping people cope with hard diagnoses. The treatment “helped me to move on with my life and not focus on the possibility of cancer recurring,” one participant told researchers.

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