‘Magic Mushroom’ Drug Shows Promise in Treating Addictions and Cancer Anxiety

Suspended for decades after controversial results, research on the hallucinogen psilocybin is showing early promise in a new series of small studies

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Suspended for decades after controversial results, research on the hallucinogen psilocybin is showing early promise in a new series of small studies.

In research presented at the annual meeting of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ACNP), scientists highlighted the latest findings on the use of psilocybin, the synthetic version of the active compound in “magic mushrooms,” as a treatment for anxiety in terminal cancer patients, in smoking cessation and as a treatment for alcoholism.

Some of the studies are not complete and have not yet been reviewed by other experts, but they provide new information on psilocybin’s effects. Psilocybin is the active ingredient in over 100 species of mushrooms in the Psilocybe class, used for hundreds of years in shamanic ceremonies and other rituals in South America.

(MORE: ‘Magic Mushrooms’ Trigger Lasting Personality Change)

Research conducted during the 1950s and early ’60s into possible therapeutic uses of drugs like LSD, another hallucinogen, and psilocybin suffered from their popularity in the counterculture of the time, which led to both the ban of recreational use of psilocybin and an end to virtually all the medical studies on its effects on people. Early studies suggested the compounds might help to fight addictions and ease end-of-life fears.

Pharmacologists continued to study the drugs, however, primarily in animal models, leading to the recognition in the 1950s that LSD was similar to the brain chemical serotonin (indeed, LSD was later found to act on certain serotonin receptors) and providing one of the first hints that drugs could affect behavior by affecting particular brain chemicals.

“[So] much of modern neurobiological chemistry results from studying psychedelics,” said Dr. Charles Grob, director of child psychiatry at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, who is studying the effects of psilocybin on anxiety in terminal cancer patients.

(MORE: ‘An Anti-Inflammatory for the Ego’: Psychedelic Drugs Produce Lasting Positive Change)

In Johns Hopkins’ ongoing program of psilocybin research, scientists have treated over 150 volunteers in 350 drug-trial sessions. Although many participants experienced at least some type of anxiety reaction while on the drug, none of them reported lasting harm, and 70% rated the experience as one of the top five most meaningful events of their lives, comparable to the birth of a first child or the loss of a parent.

Like previous psychedelic experimenters, today’s volunteers often report profoundly mystical experiences. But modern researchers are far more careful about documenting what the drugs actually do, avoiding the exaggerated claims of early pioneers in the field (including Harvard University’s Timothy Leary), which led to more skepticism and criticism than productive investigation.

(MORE: Was Timothy Leary Right?)

UCLA’s Grob studied 12 cancer patients with end-stage disease, ages 18 to 70, all of whom were highly anxious in facing death. They were given preparatory therapy sessions so that they would know what to expect while under the influence of psilocybin and then had two sessions a month apart, one with a placebo and one with psilocybin. The vitamin niacin was used in a high dose as the placebo because it produces a physiological sensation of burning or itching on the face that is harmless but produces some “drug” effect.

During their drug sessions, participants listened to music on headphones in a hospital room that had been upgraded with fresh flowers and more colorful furnishings than the typical sterile decor. They were asked to bring pictures of their loved ones and of important life occasions or experiences as well. During the sessions, therapists sat with them but did not direct them to reflect on anything in particular and only monitored the session and helped them to calm down if they became anxious.

“Nobody had a significant anxiety reaction or ‘bad trip,’” Grob reported, citing data he published in the Archives of General Psychiatry on the research in 2011. Six months later, participants showed significant reductions in depression symptoms. Curiously, however, although they didn’t report actually feeling anxious less of the time, they no longer considered themselves as being overly anxious or worried people.

(MORE: LSD May Help Treat Alcoholism)

The studies on smoking cessation and on alcoholism have only just begun, but they show encouraging results in a small group of volunteers. Says Paul Kenny, associate professor of neuroscience at the Scripps Research Institute in Florida and a member of the program committee for the ACNP meeting: “The potential beneficial effects of psilocybin on addiction is an important question that should [be] thoroughly explored. Nevertheless, it is important to sound a note of caution. Psilocybin is unlikely to be used to treat addiction. As with other hallucinogenic drugs, it can have worrying side effects such as psychological distress or even psychosis.”

He adds, “Nevertheless, the renaissance in psilocybin research suggests that if we can understand the biological mechanisms underlying its therapeutic actions, then it may be possible to develop a new generation of drugs that lacks the notable hallucinogenic properties of psilocybin but that retains its beneficial effects. This assumes, of course, that the therapeutic and psychoactive properties of psilocybin can indeed be separated.”

It remains to be seen, however, whether that will be possible. Kenny thinks it could be, noting that the drug is relatively “promiscuous” and activates multiple brain receptors but only causes hallucinatory effects by one of those actions. But in psychedelic therapy, it could alternatively turn out that the psychological experience of the mind is what matters for the brain changes seen after taking the drug.

MORE: ‘Magic Mushrooms’ Expand the Mind by Dampening Brain Activity

14 comments
JoelC23
JoelC23

Cured my lack of emotion from Multiple Sclerosis.  Many years after being diagnosed, I was in a disconnected state detached from my emotions, finally one small bit of shrooms at a festival and my emotions came back mostly to normal that evening.  I felt happiness and love for the first time in several years.   I could feel again and have relationships with people again.  Before I was totally numb to everything.  I'm still not cured, but 100% better than I was.   I could have a normal life again.

tyga
tyga

"This experience can be quite a shock to many in the modern capitalist world, where ego runs unchecked."

I suggest that the ego runs unchecked in most parts of the world, so there's no need to make any destinctions.

violaball0
violaball0

What we know about the Magic Mushroom (Psilocybin) is the long term effect it will play psychologically and physiologically. Some known effects it could have on people are nausea vomiting, muscle weakness, and lack of coordination. Psilocybin can cause hallucination and an inability to discern fantasy from reality. However, a study was done on 179, and the result was 98 being were treated from cancer and drug, and the rest to be seen.

Dr. Viola Ball 

drug abuse recovery cost

MagicMushShop
MagicMushShop

More and more psilocybin and magic mushrooms are taken more serious. To open the mind and or in therapeutic sessions. It has been used for more than 3000 years!!

KennethCharlesHolder
KennethCharlesHolder

That is the problem with modern medicine.  If it's not broken then why fix it?  Trying to take the hallucinogenic properties out of psilocybin defeats the whole purpose of it's benefits.   Which will just be geared towards profit when they can isolate certain compounds, synthesize it, patent it, and mass market it, to the public.  It may have so many benefits to begin with because it works in complex ways on many areas of the brain.  It triggers the release of serotonin, dopamine and endorphins all at once, and seems to reset those receptors back to normal levels.  Ecstasy can deplete your serotonin levels.  Marijuana can deplete your dopamine levels.  Opiates can deplete your endorphin levels.  My suspicion is that Psilocybin mushrooms nourishes all those neurotransmitters, and receptors back ideal levels for functioning properly.  Psilocybin mushrooms are like health food for your brain. 

frenchiesmithrecords
frenchiesmithrecords

"it may be possible to develop a new generation of drugs that lacks thenotable hallucinogenic properties of psilocybin but that retains itsbeneficial effects."

It's called "Molly" or MDMA. 

jont
jont

Its not a drug. Its a fungi.

morninggloryseed
morninggloryseed

The mushroom shown is Psilocybe Cubensis.  It does look similar to a fly agaric...both have the veil and sometimes cubensis has the appearance of warts from the veil.  Nevertheless, the mushroom shown is a psilocybe mushroom.

TrevorThompson
TrevorThompson

living is easy with eyes closed - misunderstanmding all you see (strawberry fields forever)....

TrevorThompson
TrevorThompson

the human being itself is a kind of "addiction animal" - run by desires / addictions and habits - running a "hierarchyof needs" - that is why these are useful treating OCD and other addictions - they simply supercede those experiences.....

JackBrady
JackBrady

This is not news to people experienced with Psilocybin Mushrooms. The mainstream is just beginning to realize  what older cultures have known for thousands of years. The utility of these compounds cannot be ignored. A Psilocybin trip removes your ego and its illusions and exposes the real you to yourself. This experience can be quite a shock to many in the modern capitalist world, where ego runs unchecked. Ultimately, people are healthier emotionally and intellectually after eating these compounds.

SteveStilts
SteveStilts

I don't know about the viability of treating addictions but I can say that the profound spiritual "trip" and the seemingly deep, philosophical thoughts and ideas you have while on LSD and "magic mushrooms" ARE REAL!!! I would also agree that these experiences are VERY PROFOUND and do indeed affect you for the rest of your life. I could see how it would ease the anxiety of a person facing death. It shows a user another spiritual "plane" and that could be interpreted as a "God-moment".

MelinaCassidy
MelinaCassidy

Great article, happy to see this in Time, except that the accompanying photo is of a Muscaria mushroom, not a Psylocibin one.

tyga
tyga

@JackBrady


"This experience can be quite a shock to many in the modern capitalist world, where ego runs unchecked."

I suggest that the ego runs unchecked in most parts of the world, so there's no need to make any destinctions.