With therapy, ‘magic mushrooms’ could help cancer patients with depression

The active ingredient in magic mushrooms has shown promise in treating people with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Now, doctors are seeing whether psilocybin can help cancer patients cope with depression.

“It’s really a therapy combination with psilocybin,” said Dr. Manish Agrawal, the director at Shady Grove Adventist Aquilino Cancer Center in Rockville, Maryland.

Earlier studies involving psilocybin and depressed cancer patients have shown promise, Agrawal said.

What’s unique in this study is that multiple patients with depression will receive the drug simultaneously and come back together afterward for subsequent sessions of counseling, so they have a shared experience.

“Part of what we feel — we certainly see this with our cancer patients — is that there’s a sense of community and support in being together. We see that in the [chemotherapy] infusion suite, and so we think that there’s increased efficacy with having simultaneous administration in a group setting,” he said.

This hallway opens to the four treatment rooms where psilocybin will be dosed simultaneously to the first of 30 patients taking part in the study at Shady Grove Adventist in Rockville. (Courtesy Halkin Mason)

Each patient will be in their own room with their assigned therapist, while a lead psychologist oversees all four rooms remotely. The environment for each room is designed to be calm and soothing and set up to be identical with the same lighting, furniture, temperature and sounds.

The study over time will include 30 patients. Psilocybin will be dosed simultaneously to two or four people who have already had two preparatory sessions with therapists, so counselors can get to know them and learn about their lives.

“This type of therapy, you don’t give somebody the psilocybin and tell them to go home. It’s in a very safe and supported and controlled environment,” Agrawal said. “With a therapist sitting next to the patient for the entire time, which can be four, six, eight hours.”

Depending on the results of this first clinical trial to test the safety and efficacy of the strategy, it may be followed by a larger multi-institutional study.

More information about services and trials offered at the Aquilino Cancer Center is available on the center’s website.

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