Magic Mushrooms Relieve Depression, Anxiety in Cancer Patients, Studies Show

By Keri Blakinger 12/07/16

The day after their medically supervised trips, 80% of the NYU patients stopped qualifying as clinically anxious or depressed.

A dried mushroom.

Shrooms might offer a magical mental boon for some cancer patients, according to a new pair of studies. Psilocybin – the active drug in magic mushrooms – can help combat anxiety and depression in cancer patients, according to two small-scale studies reported on by the Associated Press.

Currently, the naturally occurring drug is illegal in the U.S., so any federal approval would likely hinge on administering it in clinical settings.

Published in the Journal of Psychotherapy, the studies – headed up by scientists at New York University and Johns Hopkins University – looked at barely 75 patients combined, so the conclusions are limited.

But in both studies, the fun fungi treatment worked better than a placebo. The day after their medically supervised trips, 80% of the NYU patients stopped qualifying as clinically anxious or depressed, a notably rapid response. That effect was true for only about 30% of the placebo group.

That speedy reaction could be critical in the case of cancer patients, according to Dr. Stephen Ross, who led the NYU study. “Cancer patients with anxiety and depression need help immediately, especially if you consider that they are at elevated risk for completed suicide,” he told the New York Times.

The two studies used different methods to create a placebo group. In the NYU study, patients were dosed with niacin, which can imitate some of psilocybin’s effects; at Johns Hopkins, placebo group patients were given low doses of psilocybin.

After the study, scientists followed the patients for another six months and found that the depression-fighting effects lasted for at least that long. None of the patients in either study suffered severe side effects.

At this point, it’s not clear whether the drug would be effective in depression and anxiety patients not battling cancer, according to Roland Griffiths, who led the Baltimore study.

Until the early 1970s, scientists explored psychedelic drugs for use in cancer patients, but tightening regulations halted the studies in light of the substances’ spike in popularity for recreational use, according to the Associated Press.

Even so, this isn’t the first time in recent memory that scientists have probed the magic of mushrooms. Almost five years ago, British researchers found that psilocybin could have an effect on the brain similar to anti-depressants. Other studies found that the drug could reduce death anxiety in terminal cancer patients, remove cluster headaches, and boost positive moods.

Right now, another drug study is looking to parse the possibility of trippy solutions to post-traumatic stress disorder treatment.

At the end of last month, the FDA green-lighted a study using MDMA to treat PTSD.

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.