Anyone who has dealt with cancer (whether in themselves or a loved one) can tell you how traumatic the disease can be, and the toll it can take on individuals. The physical effects of cancer can be tremendous, however, in recent years medical and technological improvements have led to increased survival rates, and reduced physical symptoms. The aspect of the disease which is often forgotten though is the severe impact it can have on the patient's mental and emotional wellbeing.
Many patients with cancer experience anxiety, depression, and anger while dealing with the illness. Advanced stage or terminal cancer patients also undergo severe psychological suffering from feelings of loss of independence, social isolation, and hopelessness. But some doctors are now looking for better ways to treat the emotional aspects of cancer, not just the physical.
Dr. Roland R. Griffiths is a professor of behavioral biology and neuroscience researcher at John's Hopkins University School of Medicine. Griffiths is the lead author on a recently published study which analyzed the psychological effects of psilocybin on adults in a controlled environment.
Psilocybin is a naturally occurring active component of several species of mushrooms. Once taken, it is rapidly metabolized into psilocin by the body, which activates serotonin receptors and leads to a psychoactive experience. Known on the streets as “shrooms” or “magic mushrooms”, psilocybin, as well as all other hallucinogenic drugs, were made illegal after being classified as a Schedule 1 drugs in the 1980s. Schedule 1 drugs are characterized by three requirements:
No accepted medical use
Inability to use safely
High potential for abuse
Griffiths and his colleagues are working to change the general perception of drugs like psilocybin and prove that they can have important medicinal uses. By administering the drugs in a controlled environment with medical professionals present, Griffiths and his team were able to ensure purity of the drug and prevent any potentially harmful situations from arising.
In the study, conducted at Johns Hopkins University, 18 healthy adults (average age 46) participated in five eight-hour drug sessions of varying psilocybin doses or placebo. The majority of the participants (78%) participated regularly in religious activities, and all were interested in spiritual experience; nearly all were college graduates.
The sessions took place in a living room-like setting specifically designed to be calm, comfortable, and attractive. Participants wore eyeshades and headphones playing classical music while under the influence, and were instructed to “direct their attention inward.”
Fourteen months after the study ended, researchers followed up with participants to ask about their experience with psilocybin. Of those who received the drug, 94% said it was one of the top five most meaningful experiences of their lives, while 39% said it was the single most meaningful experience. Many participants said the experience allowed them to open their minds and understand themselves and others better; they were more compassionate and more patient afterwards.
“I feel that I relate better in my marriage,” said one participant. “There is more empathy – a greater understanding of people and understanding their difficulties and less judgment. Less judgment of myself too.”
Another said: “I have better interaction with close friends and family and with acquaintances and strangers... My alcohol use has diminished dramatically.”
Family members, friends, and colleagues of participants noted that they seemed calmer, happier, and kinder after the study.
The researchers were also able to zero in on the right dosing by experimenting with differing amounts, and discovered that by reducing the dose, they saw the same positive benefits without any negative effects like anxiety or fearfulness.
This weekend, Griffiths is scheduled to speak about the study at the 2013 Psychedelic Science Conference in Oakland. He is currently seeking patients with a cancer diagnosis to participate in his next set of experiments. Griffiths, and doctors like him, hope that the positive effects seen in the individuals in his first study will prove even more important in impacting the psychological trauma faced by patients with cancer. He also believes psilocybin could be used to help smokers kick their addictions.
Griffiths' study was published in the journal Psychopharmacology.