The psychedelic drug in magic mushrooms can quickly and effectively help treat anxiety and depression in cancer patients, according to two small studies in the United States.
Also known as shrooms, purple passion and little smoke, psilocybin comes from certain kinds of mushrooms.
And Dr Craig Blinderman, who directs the adult palliative care service at the Columbia University Medical Center/New York-Presbyterian Hospital, said the record on the effects of the substance showed “very impressive results” so far.
But the New York University project, which also included psychotherapy, covered just 29 patients, while the Johns Hopkins University study had 51 – so more definitive research still needs to be done.
Psilocybin is illegal in the US, so if the federal government approves the treatment, experts say it would be administered in clinics by specially trained staff.
It would be a risk for people to try it on their own, said Dr Stephen Ross of New York University and Roland Griffiths of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore – they’re the leaders of the two studies.
This isn’t the first time that psychedelic drugs have looked promising for treating distress in cancer patients. But after a regulatory crackdown on the drugs in the early 1970s, studies of medical use of psychedelics stopped. Now, research is slowly resuming.
So, could psilocybin work outside of cancer patients? Well, that’s unclear – although Griffiths said he suspects it might work in people facing other terminal conditions. He added that plans were also under way to study it in depression that resists standard treatment.
Dinah Bazer, who lives in New York, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2010, when she was 63. Treatment was successful, but then she became anxious about it coming back.
“I just began to be filled with a terrible dread,” she said in an interview. “You’re waiting for the other shoe to drop … (The anxiety) was ruining my life.”
She swallowed a capsule of psilocybin in 2012 in the company of two staff members trained to guide her through the several hours that the drug would affect her brain.
“Suddenly I was in a dark, terrifying place, lost in space, lost in time,” she recalled. “I had no bearings and I was really, really terrified.”
Then she saw her dread of a cancer recurrence as a black mass in her abdomen, and she furiously yelled at it to leave.
“As soon as that happened, the fear was gone,” she said. “I was just floating in the music … like being carried in a river.”
Then she felt deep love for her family and friends, and sensed their love for her.
“It felt like I was bathed in God’s love … I’m still an atheist, by the way, but that really seemed to be the only way to describe it.”
And researchers have said such mystical experiences appeared to play a role in the drug’s therapeutic effect.