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Psilocybin Studies: A New Ray of Hope for Psychiatry?

December 01, 2016

By Andrew Penn, RN, MS, NP, CNS, APRN-BC
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The opinions expressed by Psychiatry & Behavioral Health Learning Network bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone and are not meant to reflect the opinions of the publication.

Two significant studies were published today showing strong evidence that psilocybin, the psychoactive compound in psychedelic mushrooms, can be used safely and effectively in controlled settings to treat the anxiety and depression experienced by patients with cancer. These studies, conducted by teams at Johns Hopkins University and New York University, were the latest findings showing that psychedelics, erroneously dismissed as mere intoxicants and swept up in the hysteria of the Nixon-era drug wars, could prove to be as important to psychiatry as penicillin was to infectious disease.

Psilocybin Study Results Hailed as Potentially Groundbreaking

In both studies, researchers found that psilocybin, when embedded into a brief psychotherapy protocol, had significant improvements in depression and anxiety scores, and improvements in measures of spiritual well-being, measures of emotional distress related to the cancer, and improved quality of life. About 60% to 80% of the subjects reported that the gains were sustained for the 6-month duration of the studies. Equally important, these studies confirmed that this drug could be administered without significant adverse effects when given in a controlled environment, with patients accompanied by trained therapists.

Not only was the size of the effect impressive (Cohen’s d ranged from 1.36-1.69 on the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale in the NYU study), but it was also enduring. In the Hopkins study, 71% of the high-dose psilocybin group remained in remission (per the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale) from their depression 6 months after the session.

This combination of large impact and enduring duration of action is what should make these studies compelling to the psychiatric and oncology communities. Rarely do any of our interventions have this level of impact, and even more rarely does this degree of improvement persist over time. We have the opportunity with psilocybin-assisted therapy to do something that we rarely do in psychiatry: to cure.

These studies represent a new ray of hope for our profession and our ability to help some of our most desperate patients, those whose lives are disrupted not only by cancer, but by the existential distress of dying, not only find relief from their suffering, but to find meaning in their illness.

The studies are available without subscription at http://jop.sagepub.com/content/current.

Andrew Penn was trained as an adult nurse practitioner and psychiatric clinical nurse specialist at the University of California, San Francisco. He is board certified as an adult nurse practitioner and psychiatric nurse practitioner by the American Nurses Credentialing Center. Currently, he serves as an Assistant Clinical Professor at the University of California-San Francisco School of Nursing. Mr. Penn is a psychiatric nurse practitioner with Kaiser Permanente in Redwood City, CA, where he provides psychopharmacological treatment for adult patients and specializes in the treatment of affective disorders and PTSD. He is a former board member of the American Psychiatric Nurses Association, California Chapter, and has presented nationally on improving medication adherence, emerging drugs of abuse, treatment-resistant depression, diagnosis and treatment of bipolar disorder, and the art and science of psychopharmacologic practice. 

The views expressed on this blog are solely those of the blog post author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Psych Congress Network or other Psych Congress Network authors. Blog entries are not medical advice.

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