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Psilocybin Study Reveals Potential to Alleviate Psychological and Spiritual Distress in Cancer Patients

April 11, 2013

Improvements in the diagnosis and treatment of cancers in recent years have led to a marked increase in patients’ physical survival rates. While doctors can treat the physical disease, what is not well understood is how best to address the psychological needs of patients with cancer.

In addition to the physical pain associated with cancer, many patients also experience psychologically harmful symptoms of anxiety, depression, anger, and denial. Social isolation, in addition to hopelessness, helplessness, and loss of independence, has also been associated with significant psychological suffering in patients coping with advanced-stage cancer.

A recently published book chapter, “Use of the Classic Hallucinogen Psilocybin for Treatment of Existential Distress Associated With Cancer,” reviews the potential of a novel psychoactive drug, psilocybin, in alleviating the psychological and spiritual distress that often accompanies a life-threatening cancer diagnosis.

The work, published in Psychological Aspects of Cancer: A Guide to Emotional and Psychological Consequences of Cancer, Their Causes, and Their Management, was co-written by Anthony P. Bossis, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and oral and maxillofacial pathology, radiology, and medicine at the NYU College of Dentistry (NYUCD) and NYU Langone Medical Center.

The hallucinogen treatment model with psilocybin has been shown to induce a mystical or spiritual experience and is a unique therapeutic approach to reduce the anxiety of terminal cancer patients.

“Mystical or peak consciousness states in cancer patients have been associated with a number of benefits including improved psychological, spiritual, and existential wellbeing,” says Bossis of the study, which was recently highlighted in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

Psilocybin (a serotonergic psychoactive agent) is a naturally occurring active component of many species of mushrooms, and is rapidly metabolized to psilocin, a highly potent activator of serotonin receptors. In addition to receiving the psilocybin compound, patients enrolled in the study also receive psychological preparation prior to the psilocybin dosing followed by a brief series of integrative psychotherapeutic sessions.

Stephen Ross, assistant professor of psychiatry and child and adolescent psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine and clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and oral and maxillofacial pathology, radiology, and medicine at the NYUCD, is the principal investigator for the study; Bossis and Jeffrey Guss, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry, are co-principal investigators.

The co-authors of the chapter were Charles S. Grob, professor at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, and Roland R. Griffiths, professor at Johns Hopkins University.


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Psilocybin Study Reveals Potential to Alleviate Psychological and Spiritual Distress in Cancer Patients

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