According to statistics from several sources, close to 40 percent of the global population will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime, with a third of those individuals developing anxiety, depression, and other forms of distress as a result.
These conditions, experts say, are associated with poorer quality of life, increased rates of suicide, and lowered survival rate.
Unfortunately, conventional pharmacologic treatment methods like antidepressants work for less than half of cancer patients and tend to not work any better than placebos.
In addition, they have no effect whatsoever on existential distress and death anxiety, which commonly accompany a cancer diagnosis and are linked to a hastened desire for death and increased suicidality.
In a recent study from NYU Grossman School of Medicine, researchers found that a one-time, single-dose treatment of psilocybin, a compound found in psychedelic mushrooms, combined with psychotherapy may lead to strong improvements in emotional and existential distress in cancer patients.
These effects persisted nearly five years after the drug was administered.
The study is published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology. One author is Stephen Ross, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry.
Previously, the team had found psilocybin produced immediate, substantial, and sustained improvements in anxiety and depression and led to decreases in cancer-related demoralization and hopelessness, improved spiritual well-being, and increased quality of life.
At the final 6.5-month follow-up assessment, psilocybin was linked to enduring antianxiety and antidepressant effects.
Approximately 60% to 80% of participants continued with strong reductions in depression or anxiety, sustained benefits in existential distress and quality of life, as well as improved attitudes toward death.
The present study is a long-term follow-up of a subset of participants from the original study.
The participants reported on sustained reductions in anxiety, depression, hopelessness, demoralization, and death anxiety at both follow-up points.
The team found about 60% to 80% of participants met the criteria for clinically significant antidepressant or anxiolytic responses at the 4.5-year follow-up.
Participants overwhelmingly (71 to 100 percent) attributed positive life changes to the psilocybin-assisted therapy experience and rated it among the most personally meaningful and spiritually significant experiences of their lives.
The researchers say psilocybin may provide a useful tool for enhancing the effectiveness of psychotherapy and ultimately relieving these symptoms.
Although the precise mechanisms are not fully understood, experts believe that the drug can make the brain more flexible and receptive to new ideas and thought patterns.
In addition, previous research indicates that the drug targets a network of the brain, the default mode network, which becomes activated when we engage in self-reflection and mind wandering, and which helps to create our sense of self and sense of coherent narrative identity.
In patients with anxiety and depression, this network becomes hyperactive and is associated with rumination, worry, and rigid thinking.
Psilocybin appears to acutely shift activity in this network and helps people to take a more broadened perspective on their behaviors and lives.
The team says the finding could profoundly transform the psycho-oncologic care of patients with cancer, and importantly could be used in hospice settings to help terminally ill cancer patients approach death with improved emotional and spiritual well-being.
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