Researchers at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine have found that a psychedelic drug can significantly reduce anxiety, depression and other emotional distress in cancer patients.
The patients experienced almost immediate relief, which lasted for months, after taking psilocybin, the active hallucinogenic ingredient in "magic mushrooms," the researchers reported. A separate study by researchers at NYU Langone Medical Center found the same effect.
The findings are the latest in a growing body of research on how psychedelics can be used to treat various illnesses. Studies involving the drugs have resurged in recent years after being stymied for decades when the federal government deemed psychedelics a dangerous controlled substance and stopped funding the research.
The Johns Hopkins and NYU researchers, who published their findings online Thursday in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, called them the most conclusive evidence yet that psychedelics could ease emotional pain and anxiety for cancer patients.
The researchers also said psilocybin has the potential to be used as part of end-of-life care for terminal patients.
A total of 80 patients participated in the two trials. The researchers pointed out that the two studies used different techniques but came to the same conclusion, supporting the validity of the results.
"That gave us even greater confidence there was something powerful going on here," said Roland Griffiths, a professor of behavioral biology and neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
The researchers now plan to apply to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to undertake a larger clinical trial with hundreds of patients.
In the Hopkins study, 80 percent of the 51 patients who participated continued to show decreased feelings of depression and anxiety about the prospect of dying six months after the final treatment. About 67 percent said the effect of the drug was one of their top five most meaningful life experiences. The Hopkins participants had been diagnosed with life-threatening cancers.
About 80 percent of the 29 patients in the NYU study showed improvements six months after treatment. The NYU participants had advanced breast, gastrointestinal or blood cancers.
The findings are important because traditional psychotherapy, such as the use of antidepressants, isn't always effective in treating people with cancer, Griffiths and the other researchers said. It may take weeks or months for the drugs to work, and some drugs may have negative side effects, or can be addictive.
Scientists don't know exactly how psilocybin and other psychedelics work in the brain. They think they may affect serotonin, a chemical that controls mood and anxiety and is associated with depression.
Judith Goedeke, 63, a retired acupuncturist who lives in North Laurel, said she was one of the beneficiaries of the Johns Hopkins study. She had her left kidney and adrenal glands removed in 2003 after being diagnosed with kidney disease. After the surgery, she felt constantly tired and anxious.
At first, Goedeke was reluctant to try psilocybin because she remembered stories of people doing crazy things when high on psychedelics in the 1970s.
Like the other study participants, she was interviewed extensively and given surveys so researchers could gauge her mood, attitude about life and other emotional benchmarks. Each patient then went through two treatment sessions — the first with a low dose of psilocybin meant to act as a placebo and the second with a higher dose.
Researchers checked in again seven hours, five weeks and six months later.
Goedeke took the psilocybin in a Hopkins office decorated like a living room, complete with a fluffy white sofa. She remembers feeling very cold and shivering when she first got the pill. She also experienced a weird sensation around her heart and felt as if old fear was "peeling" off her body.
The second session was much more intense. She saw colorful images everywhere, coming and going very quickly. Then she felt as if her body lit up and she began to feel complete peace.
Goedeke said she was in a "bliss" for a year. Some of that feeling has subsided, but she still feels less anxious and less rundown than she did before the treatment.
"I feel so indebted to these brilliant, tender people at Hopkins," she said. "I have benefited enormously."
Johns Hopkins has also studied how psychedelics, combined with meditation, can enhance psychological well-being and spirituality in healthy people, and can be effective in smoking cessation.
Psilocybin is being studied as a treatment for alcoholism at the University of New Mexico and New York University, as a treatment for cocaine dependence at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and as a novel antidepressant at Johns Hopkins and at Imperial College London.
Psychedelics were more widely studied in the 1950s and 1960s, until people began abusing the drugs and their use became stigmatized. The drugs were listed in the federal Controlled Substances Act as a Schedule 1 substance, the most dangerous designation, requiring researchers to get extra layers of approval from the Drug Enforcement Administration. This made the process more time-consuming and expensive.
The National Institutes of Health stopped funding studies, and pharmaceutical companies have not taken much interest in developing psychedelic drugs because they can't be patented.
Private funders, such as the Beckley Foundation and the Heffter Research Institute, have underwritten the costs of current studies. Heffter funded both the NYU and Johns Hopkins studies. The group said it is building off strong science from earlier decades.
"The research was shut down for social issues, but the potential for treating people was still there," said George Greer, Heffter's medical director. "The research did not stop for scientific reasons."