Doctors at an Australia hospital will treat terminally ill patients with psilocybin in a study to determine if the drug can ease the anxiety often experienced at the end of life. Researchers at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne plan to administer the hallucinogenic compound to 30 dying patients in April, according to media reports.
Clinical psychologist Dr. Margaret Ross said that terminally ill patients in the study would be given a single dose of a synthetic psilocybin drug. Initial studies have shown that one psilocybin treatment session can give patients an altered outlook on life for up to six months. The treatments are conducted by trained observers in a supervised setting and therapists recommend that patients not use the drug outside of the clinical environment.
Officials at St. Vincent’s say that three out of 10 palliative care patients experience extreme distress during the final months of life. The study to be conducted at the hospital took more than a year to be approved by an ethics committee and regulators at the state and federal level.
Similar Study Shows Success
A similar study of terminally ill cancer patients was conducted at Johns Hopkins University in 2016. Dr. Roland Griffiths, a professor of behavioral biology, said that researchers found that psilocybin treatment can result in a marked improvement in the mental well-being of patients.
“The most interesting and remarkable finding is that a single dose of psilocybin, which lasts four to six hours, produced enduring decreases in depression and anxiety symptoms, and this may represent a fascinating new model for treating some psychiatric conditions,” said Griffiths.
Six months after psilocybin treatment, 80 percent of the patients in the study showed significant decreases in anxiety and depression. Increases in well-being were reported by 83 percent of patients and two-thirds said the treatment session was one of the five most meaningful experiences in their lives.
“A life-threatening cancer diagnosis can be psychologically challenging, with anxiety and depression as very common symptoms,” said Griffiths. “People with this kind of existential anxiety often feel hopeless and are worried about the meaning of life and what happens upon death.”
Griffiths said that the results of the study exceeded his expectations.
“Before beginning the study, it wasn’t clear to me that this treatment would be helpful, since cancer patients may experience profound hopelessness in response to their diagnosis, which is often followed by multiple surgeries and prolonged chemotherapy,” he said. “I could imagine that cancer patients would receive psilocybin, look into the existential void and come out even more fearful. However, the positive changes in attitudes, moods and behavior that we documented in healthy volunteers were replicated in cancer patients.”