September 7, 2010

Magic Mushroom Hallucinogen Helps Ease Cancer Anxiety

U.S. researchers said Monday that magic mushrooms may help ease the anxiety that accompanies late-stage cancer.

They said that cancer patients given a moderate dose of the hallucinogen psilocybin were measurably less depressed six months after a single dose compared with a placebo.

The study of 12 cancer patients was designed to prove that hallucinogenic drugs could be studied as a way to relieve the distress of advanced cancer.

The study, which was published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, revives a promising field of study lasting from the 1950s to the early 1970s that suggested some patients experienced powerful and sustained improvements in mood and anxiety from hallucinogens.

Researchers said the original studies were abandoned in the early 1970s when hallucinogenic drugs like LSD became popular, leading to strict federal laws.

"Forty to 45 years ago, the culture was going through tremendous upheaval. These compounds were associated with a very politically active counterculture," Dr. Charles Grob of Harbor-University of California Los Angeles Medical Center and the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute told Reuters.

"It was something of a public health crisis. Everything had to be shut down," Grob said in a telephone interview with the news agency.

Federal law prohibits the use of magic mushrooms compound.  Grob told Reuters that if the study proves effective among cancer patients, then U.S. regulators would need to make special accommodations for its use.

The study looked to see whether psilocybin could help ease some of the anxiety of dying cancer patients.

Patients were given a moderate dose of psilocybin during the treatment phase of the study.  They were watched and told to lie still with their eyes closed as they wore headphones and listened to soothing music.

Each of the patients received a dose of niacin during the placebo phase and given the same instructions.

Neither of the doctors or patients were told which compound was administered.

All the volunteers tolerated the treatment sessions well, with most patients showing a trend of improvement in their anxiety symptoms.  There was also a statistically significant improvement on one depression scale.

Grob told Reuters that the small study proved the drug could be studied safely in cancer patients.  He said John Hopkins University in Baltimore and New York University were doing similar studies using a slightly higher dose.

"Times have changed and it's now possible to pick up this research model again," he told Reuters.

Marijuana can be used for medical purposes in 14 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.  In November, voters in California will decide whether or not to legalize pot.

"I think that is an indication that there has been a very strong shift within society to move away from the old cultural bias and politics of the process many years ago. I think there is a greater capacity to be open-minded and let science dictate our conclusion, not politics," Grob told Reuters.


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