Swiss LSD study yields incredible results for terminally ill patients
By Victoria Kim
The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease published the results of an innovative study measuring LSD's effects on end-of-life anxiety. The study marks the first controlled trial of LSD in over 40 years. It tested the use of LSD as a complement to talk therapy for a group of 12 people nearing the end of life.
After about two months of weekly therapy, the eight participants who received full doses of LSD improved by about 20% on standard measures of anxiety. The four subjects who took a much weaker dose got worse. Overall, after following up with the group a year after the trial's conclusion, Dr. Peter Gasser, who conducted the therapy, said the patients anxiety went down and stayed down.
The drug caused no serious side effects other than temporary and therapeutically valuable times of distress. One of the subjects, a 50-year-old Austrian social worker named Peter, told the New York Times that he was worried about having a bad trip, but ended up having a mystical experience. "I had what you would call a mystical experience, I guess, lasting for some time, and the major part was pure distress at all these memories I had successfully forgotten for decades," he said. "These painful feelings, regrets, this fear of death. I remember feeling very cold for a long time. I was shivering, even though I was sweating. It was a mental coldness, I think, a memory of neglect."
One 67-year-old patient said he met his dead, estranged father somewhere out in the cosmos, who nodded to him in approval.
Switzerland is known for their progressive, harm reduction approach to drug policy. Their national heroin treatment program, for example, provides drug addicts with free methadone and clean needles. This policy has seen reduced deaths and crime rates, which is a marked turnaround from what was once the site of Zurich's infamous Platzspitz park, dubbed needle park in the 1980s.
It's been just over 70 years since Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann discovered LSD's mind-altering qualities when he absorbed some through his fingertips. But research about the drugs therapeutic qualities are just making a resurgence, along with mushrooms and ecstasy. Since the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 (CSA) came into effect 44 years ago, these psychedelics were labeled as Schedule I drugs, which are defined as having no medical benefit and a high potential for abuse, making them more difficult to conduct studies with. Marijuana is also considered a Schedule I drug.
Before the CSA, close to 700 studies took place, and the research suggested that psychedelics offered significant benefits in treating alcoholism, easing end-of-life anxiety and treating many complex psychiatric illness such as obsessive-compulsive disorder.
The scientific community has researched psychedelics for the treatment of PTSD, alcoholism and drug addictions, and their findings have been promising. The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, for example, found that psilocybin, an active component of magic mushrooms that trigger transformative spiritual states, may have lasting medical and spiritual benefits when taken in the right dosage. The study researchers were able to reliably induce transcendental experiences in subjects. These experiences offered long-lasting psychological growth and helped people find peace in their lives without negative side effects.
With Switzerlands progressive approach to drug policy, scientists are able to conduct studies with drugs that are still very controversial in the U.S. While countries like Switzerland and Israel are ahead of the game in propelling research of the medical benefits of psychedelics, the U.S. is falling behind by limiting research of these substances.
Just one dose of psilocybin found to ease anxiety stemming from advanced cancer
By Alexandra Sifferlin
Cancer is a brutal disease on both the body and mind. Not only do treatments like chemotherapy take a massive toll, but the emotional side effects can be hard to bear. Depression and anxiety are high among people with cancer, including those in remission. But two new studies offer promising relief through an unlikely source: hallucinogenic drugs.
In two new studies released simultaneously by researchers at New York University and Johns Hopkins, doctors reveal that a single dose of psilocybin can ease anxiety and depression for up to six months. The results have great potential for people dealing with the fear associated with a cancer diagnosis, but also for people with psychiatric disorders that haven't responded to traditional treatments like psychotherapy or antidepressants.
The studies, both published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, are accompanied by 11 editorials of support from leaders in psychiatry, including two past presidents of the American Psychiatric Association. "Our results represent the strongest evidence to date of a clinical benefit from psilocybin therapy, with the potential to transform care for patients with cancer-related psychological distress," says NYU study author Dr. Stephen Ross, director of substance abuse services in the Department of Psychiatry at NYU Langone in a statement.
The NYU Langone Medical Center study involved 29 people who had serious psychological distress, like anxiety or depression, stemming from advanced cancer. Each person received either a capsule of psilocybin or a placebo capsule; in a second session, they were given the pill they hadn't yet taken. The sessions lasted from four to six hours in a room equipped with head phones, a couch and a sleep mask.
People had their own individual experiences with the drug. But the results were remarkable: 60-80% of people in the study reported reductions in their depression and anxiety symptoms that lasted six months after the treatment.
The Johns Hopkins study, which involved 51 adults, had similar results. They each received one large dose of the drug, and six months later, 80% of the people in the trial continued to show decreases in depression and anxiety symptoms. Eighty-three percent of people reported increases in their well-being and life satisfaction, and 67% said the trial was one of the top five most meaningful experiences in their lives.
Several people described experiencing an overwhelming feeling of love while on the drug and felt they had changed immediately. The feeling of immense love lingered for weeks, and four years later I still feel it at times, says participant Dinah Bazer, who was experiencing severe anxiety about a possible ovarian cancer recurrence. My fear and anxiety were completely removed, and they haven't come back.
Lisa Callaghan's late husband, former TV news director Patrick Mettes, was also in the NYU trial. Mettes eventually died from cancer of the bile ducts, but undergoing the trial "gave him a sense of peace," says his wife. "In his trip there was an evolution through all of these stages of emotional development," says Callaghan. "He was reborn into this place of personal and universal love. He said he felt it all around him, and he felt a sense of forgiveness too."
The potential therapeutic use of psilocybin has been recognized for years, but strict drug laws implemented 45 years ago stalled research. In the 1950s and 1960s, several teams in the United States studied psychedelic compounds for potential mental disorder treatments. But widespread recreational use of the substances became cause for concern and overshadowed the possible therapeutic benefits. In 1971, psilocybin and other psychedelic compounds were classified as schedule 1 drugs, meaning that the government believes they have high potential for abuse. This classification makes it very difficult for research to continue, despite the fact that experts argue adverse side effects from psilocybin (when used responsibly) are rare.
"I tried to understand how something this big had been buried," says Ross. Due to these restrictions, says it took the hospital a couple years to get their study off the ground.
Some of the men and women in the studies did experience side effects, like nausea and headaches, but none were severe. It's unclear precisely how psilocybin works, but the study authors say that the drug may activate parts of the brain that are impacted by serotonin, which can play a role in anxiety, mood and depression.
Significantly more research is needed before psilocybin could be considered as a clinical therapy. The researchers stress that psilocybin in the trials was given in a very controlled environment with multiple investigators present, and that people should not attempt the drug on their own. There's also some concern that pharmaceutical companies may not see financial incentives in single-dose therapies.
Still, many people in the medical community are hopeful. "We're excited about finding a medicine that can be helpful to people suffering from conditions not successfully treated by standard treatment," says Dr. George Greer, medical director of the Heffter Research Institute, which helped fund the studies. "There's a lot of interest."
My spouse died from a slow and painful cancer. Fortunately we were able to attend a Shaman ceremony in Ecuador and partake of ayahuasca. This was a life changing event and greatly eased the pain.