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Psilocybin Study Results Hailed as Potentially Groundbreaking

December 01, 2016

Two new randomized and controlled trials show that just one dose of psilocybin—the compound in psychedelic mushrooms—can produce dramatic and long-lasting improvements in depression and anxiety symptoms.

The findings, published in The Journal of Psychopharmacology, are being hailed as unprecedented and potentially transformative for the treatment of psychiatric disorders.

Psilocybin Studies: A New Ray of Hope for Psychiatry?

“These findings, the most profound to date in the medical use of psilocybin, indicate it could be more effective at treating serious psychiatric diseases than traditional pharmaceutical approaches, and without having to take a medication every day,” said George R. Greer, MD, Medical Director of the Heffter Research Institute, which funded and reviewed the studies.

Psych Congress Steering Committee member Andrew Penn, RN, MS, NP, CNS, APRN-BC, said that if the findings can be replicated in larger studies, “we may be living witnesses to an event in psychiatry that is no less significant than when Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin.”

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“These studies represent a new dawn 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,” said Penn, Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner at Kaiser Permanente in Redwood City, California.

The 2 studies were led by researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, and the New York University (NYU) Langone Medical Center in New York City. The participants in both trials had life-threatening cancer diagnoses and related mood disturbances.

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Fifty-one adults participated in the double-blind Johns Hopkins study. They received a capsule of psilocybin in what is considered a moderate or high dose (22 or 30 mg/70 kg) during 1 of 2 treatment sessions.  At the other session, they received a low dose of psilocybin as a control.

Researchers reported they had considerable relief from their anxiety or depression symptoms for up to 6 months. About 80% of the participants continued to show clinically significant decreases in symptoms 6 months after the final treatment session.

“The most interesting and remarkable finding is that a single dose of psilocybin, which lasts four to six hours, produced enduring decreases in depression and anxiety symptoms, and this may represent a fascinating new model for treating some psychiatric conditions,” says Roland Griffiths, PhD, professor of Behavioral Biology in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and Neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins medical school.

What Dose of Psilocybin Eases Anxiety, Depression?

The NYU double-blind crossover study involved 29 participants, who all received tailored counseling, a 0.3 mg/kg dose of psilocybin at one of 2 treatment sessions, and a vitamin placebo at the other session. Eighty percent of the participants experienced relief for more than 6 months, researchers reported.

“That a drug administered once can have this effect for so long is unprecedented. We have never had anything like it in the psychiatric field,” said Stephen Ross, MD, principal investigator of the NYU study and director of substance abuse services in the Department of Psychiatry at the Langone Medical Center.

Psych Congress co-chair Charles Raison, MD, said he has "had the privilege of being involved in the next stages of the work to explore whether psilocybin holds true potential for treating depression and anxiety.”

“This has given me an insider's view of this area of research and from that perspective I think there is a very good chance that psychedelic medicines—which were abandoned long ago by psychiatry—may hold promise as some of the more powerful treatments for emotional disorders that we will identify in the 21st century," said Dr. Raison, Professor of Human Development and Family Studies and of Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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The Journal of Psychopharmacology published 11 commentaries with the study results, which generally support the research into psilocybin and its use in a clinical setting, according to a Johns Hopkins statement.

Penn noted that “few mental health professionals trained in the last 4 decades know anything about these drugs, beyond their use as an intoxicant.”

"When the sun set on psychedelic drug research amidst the hysteria of the ‘drug war’ begun in the 1960s, the promise of these compounds, including psilocybin, was almost lost to history,” Penn said.

– Terri Airov

Reference

Hallucinogenic drug psilocybin eases existential anxiety in people with life-threatening cancer [press release]. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine; December 1, 2016.

Heffter-funded studies find psilocybin therapy dramatically reduces anxiety and depression in cancer patients [press release]. Sante Fe, NM: Heffter Research Institute; December 1, 2016.

Single dose of hallucinogenic drug psilocybin relieves anxiety and depression in patients with advanced cancer [press release]. New York, NY: New York University Langone Medical Center; December 1, 2016.

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