A New York University study is using psilocybin to help patients overcome the fear of death.
April 24, 2014
When O.M. was 21 he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He was a pre-med student at the time. His first reaction was denial, followed by an overwhelming and lasting anxiety, as described in an April 22 Atlantic article by Roc Morin. Even after six rounds of chemotherapy helped O.M. kick the cancer, he was plagued with a devastating fear that the disease might return. He checked his lymph nodes so often to see if they’d grown that he developed callouses on his neck.
He experienced this debilitating end-of-life anxiety from the moment he was diagnosed until the day he ingested psilocybin, extracted from hallucinogenic mushrooms while laying on a psychiatrist’s couch during a New York University study. O.M. is one of 35 study participants, all of whom suffered from severe anxiety due to cancer.
The double-blind, placebo-controlled pilot study, which is still ongoing, looks at the potentials for psilocybin to treat anxiety and other psychological distress stemming from advanced cancer. The second half of the study will look at the effect of psilocybin on “pain perception, depression, existential/psychospiritual distress, attitudes toward disease progression, quality of life, and spiritual/mystical states of consciousness.”
O.M. told the Atlantic that when he ate the mushrooms, it was “like a switch went on.”
“I went from being anxious to analyzing my anxiety from the outside,” he said. “I realized that nothing was actually happening to me objectively. It was real because I let it become real. And, right when I had that thought, I saw a cloud of black smoke come out of my body and float away.”
Gabrielle Agin-Liebes, the research manager for the NYU study, told the Atlantic that O.M. had one of the highest possible anxiety ratings possible prior to the study. The day following his treatment, O.M. scored a zero. He had absolutely no anxiety, and stayed that way for seven months following the treatment.
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As Morin’s Atlantic article notes, psilocybin was used for medicinal purposes for centuries by indigenous peoples before Western Christian globalization stomped out its mainstream usage. In the wake of WWII, hallucinogens-as-medicine made a comeback among psychiatrists. When psychoactive substances gained recreational popularity as street drugs, the Nixon administration waged its war on drugs, passing the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. Psilocybin was given restrictive Schedule I classification along with LSD, cannabis and other psychoactive substances. Nixon’s war on drugs still rages on today, filling prisons with nonviolent drug offenders and targeting minority populations.
1970s-era policies have also suppressed most research of psychedelics for decades, but thanks to the efforts of determined scientists and research groups like the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), government-approved human studies of controlled psychedelic substances are breaking ground again. While the federal government still deems them dangerous and void of medical purpose, research continues to reveal a promising medical potential of most psychoactive Schedule I substances to treat issues ranging from pain and anxiety to addiction and cancer.
A recent FDA-approved study looked at LSD in the treatment of end-of-life anxiety. It was the first controlled study of LSD in humans in 40 years, and the results were overwhelmingly positive, with every patient reporting reduced anxiety and no negative side effects.
The NYU psilocybin study is not the first of its kind. Charles Grob conducted a study with similar outcome measures at Harbor-UCLA. However, the NYU study uses higher doses of psilocybin and examines 32 subjects instead of the 12 Grob examined. The results of the current psilocybin study are still being examined, but principal investigator Stephen Ross told the Atlantic that, “the vast majority of their patients have exhibited an immediate and sustained reduction in anxiety. Consistent with similar studies involving psilocybin, approximately three-fourths of the participants rate their experience with the drug as being one of the top five most significant events of their lives.”
O.M. was among the overwhelming success cases.
“At the hospital they gave me Xanax for anxiety,” he told the Atlantic. “Xanax doesn’t get rid of your anxiety. Xanax tells you not to feel it for a while until it stops working and you take the next pill. The beauty of psilocybin is: it’s not medication. You’re not taking it and it solves your problem. You take it and you solve your problem yourself.”