Hallucinogenic Mushrooms Strongly Correlate to Depression Relief in Terminal Cancer Trial

Most people, some more intimately than others, are aware that many species of fungi contain the hallucinogenic compound psilocybin. While widely regarded as a recreational staple, research suggests that it shows medicinal promise as well. Dr. Roland Griffith, a professor of behavioral biology at Johns Hopkins University, conducted trials over the last few years seeking to understand the interaction between psilocybin and the brain. Most recently his research finds him testing the efficacy of psilocybin in assisting cancer patients coping with feelings of intense depression and anxiety associated with the disease and its treatment.

Before Griffith worked with cancer patients in this capacity, he conducted a widely reviewed double-blind study in 2008 in which 36 healthy people without prior hallucinogen experience were administered drugs: some psilocybin, others placebos, Ritalin or amphetamines. Most of the volunteers in the psilocybin group expressed undergoing a profound spiritual experience that culminated in lasting positive changes. After a two-month and fourteen-month review, the majority of patients who took psilocybin still felt this way, ranking it as one of the top five most meaningful experiences of their life. Top five – not bad for a lab experiment.

This research, amongst others, spurred Griffith to investigate the clinical application of psilocybin for therapeutic purposes. Finding  earnest and needing candidates in terminal cancer patients battling depression and anxiety, Griffith established this ongoing trial within the Johns Hopkins Behavioral Pharmacology Research Unit (BFRU). Patients are administered psilocybin via capsule, and brought to a comfortably furnished living room, complete with low lighting, a bohemian decor, headphones for pre-selected music, and a couch. Subjects are encouraged to focus on their “inner experience” during the 8-10 hour duration of the trial. At least one “guide” is at hand throughout the course of the study, and the patients’ blood pressure and heart rate are monitored. Following the completion of two sessions, participants have follow-up interviews in which they discuss their experience and any insight gleamed from it. Additional meetings are scheduled for one month following each session and six months following the final session to review the overall condition of the patient.

Preliminary results are highly encouraging for many volunteers. One subject, a clinical psychologist named Clark Martin, found the depression associated with his kidney cancer debilitating. Despite his expertise in the field, Martin felt completely helpless. Traditional remedies like antidepressant medication and counseling failed to provide meaningful relief. Hearing of Dr. Griffith’s ongoing work, Martin, at age 65, wanted to participate. His experience with the drug was not an uncommon one, “All of a sudden, everything familiar started evaporating. Imagine you fall off a boat out in the open ocean, and you turn around, and the boat is gone. And then the water’s gone. And then you’re gone.” Martin described gaining a newfound sense of empathy, “It was a whole personality shift for me. I wasn’t any longer attached to my performance and trying to control things. I could see that the really good things in life will happen if you just show up and share your natural enthusiasms with people. You have a feeling of attunement with other people.” Over one year later, Martin feels his experience at Johns Hopkins gave him the perspective needed to overcome his depression. Furthermore, he says insights gained during the psilocybin sessions fundamentally changed his relationship with his daughter and friends in a positive, meaningful, and lasting way.

Dr. Griffith says that Martin’s experience is fairly typical, and postulates that the capacity for such “unitive” experiences could be hard-wired into the brain, conferring evolutionary advantage through increases in empathy. The trial subjects’ experiences closely reflect accounts of persons undergoing mystical or spiritual transcendence, and it may be that similar associations with religion or meditation occur through neurological conduits also activated by psilocybin.

As to the longterm treatment of depression in cases other than terminal disease, I am skeptical. The efficacy of this remedy decreases with the frequency of its use, physiologically, emotionally, and intellectually. It’s the novelty of the experience that makes it revelatory, and keeping that sense of discovery fresh becomes a tolerance not easily overcome. Life changing insight is not produced by every dose. Psilocybin provides a shock to the intellect, which can broaden perspectives and improve emotional health, but its continuous use will not sustain them.

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~ by Wil Finley on April 13, 2010.

One Response to “Hallucinogenic Mushrooms Strongly Correlate to Depression Relief in Terminal Cancer Trial”

  1. Turns out recent molecular phylogenies have caused some problems for the nomenclature of Psilocybe genus. The mycophiles have voted to conserve the old name and create a new lecotype for the genus.

    http://www.ima-mycology.org/CFF/pdf/Fungi-15.pdf

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