OPEN Foundation

S. Ross

Long-term follow-up of psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy for psychiatric and existential distress in patients with life-threatening cancer.

Abstract

BACKGROUND:
A recently published randomized controlled trial compared single-dose psilocybin with single-dose niacin in conjunction with psychotherapy in participants with cancer-related psychiatric distress. Results suggested that psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy facilitated improvements in psychiatric and existential distress, quality of life, and spiritual well-being up to seven weeks prior to the crossover. At the 6.5-month follow-up, after the crossover, 60-80% of participants continued to meet criteria for clinically significant antidepressant or anxiolytic responses.
METHODS:
The present study is a long-term within-subjects follow-up analysis of self-reported symptomatology involving a subset of participants that completed the parent trial. All 16 participants who were still alive were contacted, and 15 participants agreed to participate at an average of 3.2 and 4.5 years following psilocybin administration.
RESULTS:
Reductions in anxiety, depression, hopelessness, demoralization, and death anxiety were sustained at the first and second follow-ups. Within-group effect sizes were large. At the second (4.5 year) follow-up approximately 60-80% of participants met criteria for clinically significant antidepressant or anxiolytic responses. Participants overwhelmingly (71-100%) attributed positive life changes to the psilocybin-assisted therapy experience and rated it among the most personally meaningful and spiritually significant experiences of their lives.
CONCLUSION:
These findings suggest that psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy holds promise in promoting long-term relief from cancer-related psychiatric distress. Limited conclusions, however, can be drawn regarding the efficacy of this therapy due to the crossover design of the parent study. Nonetheless, the present study adds to the emerging literature base suggesting that psilocybin-facilitated therapy may enhance the psychological, emotional, and spiritual well-being of patients with life-threatening cancer.
Agin-Liebes, G. I., Malone, T., Yalch, M. M., Mennenga, S. E., Ponté, K. L., Guss, J., … & Ross, S. (2020). Long-term follow-up of psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy for psychiatric and existential distress in patients with life-threatening cancer. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 0269881119897615., https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0269881119897615
Link to full text

Therapeutic use of classic psychedelics to treat cancer-related psychiatric distress

Cancer is highly prevalent and one of the leading causes of global morbidity and mortality. Psychological and existential suffering is common in cancer patients, associated with poor psychiatric and medical outcomes. Promising early-phase clinical research (1960s to early 1970s) suggested a therapeutic signal for serotoninergic psychedelics (e.g. psilocybin, LSD) in treating cancer-related psychiatric distress. After several decades of quiescence, research on psychedelic-assisted therapy to treat psychiatric disorders in cancer patients has resumed within the last 2 decades in the US and Europe. This review article is based on a systematic search of clinical trials from 1960–2018 researching the therapeutic use of psychedelic treatment in patients with serious or terminal illnesses and related psychiatric illness. The search found 10 eligible clinical trials, with a total of 445 participants, with the vast majority of the patients having advanced or terminal cancer diagnoses. Six open label trials, published between 1964 and 1980 (n = 341), suggested that psychedelic therapy (mostly with LSD) may improve cancer-related depression, anxiety, and fear of death. Four RCTs trials were published between 2011 and 2016 (n = 104), mostly with psilocybin treatment (n = 92), and demonstrated that psychedelic-assisted treatment can produce rapid, robust, and sustained improvements in cancer-related psychological and existential distress.
Ross, S. (2018). Therapeutic use of classic psychedelics to treat cancer-related psychiatric distress. International Review of Psychiatry30(4), 317-330., 10.1080/09540261.2018.1482261
Link to full text

Individual Experiences in Four Cancer Patients Following Psilocybin-Assisted Psychotherapy.

Abstract

A growing body of evidence shows that existential and spiritual well-being in cancer patients is associated with better medical outcomes, improved quality of life, and serves as a buffer against depression, hopelessness, and desire for hastened death. Historical and recent research suggests a role for psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy in treating cancer-related anxiety and depression. A double-blind controlled trial was performed, where 29 patients with cancer-related anxiety and depression were randomly assigned to treatment with single-dose psilocybin (0.3 mg/kg) or niacin in conjunction with psychotherapy. Previously published results of this trial demonstrated that, in conjunction with psychotherapy, moderate-dose psilocybin produced rapid, robust, and enduring anxiolytic, and anti-depressant effects. Here, we illustrate unique clinical courses described by four participants using quantitative measures of acute and persisting effects of psilocybin, anxiety, depression, quality of life, and spiritual well-being, as well as qualitative interviews, written narratives, and clinician notes. Although the content of each psilocybin-assisted experience was unique to each participant, several thematic similarities and differences across the various sessions stood out. These four participants’ personal narratives extended beyond the cancer diagnosis itself, frequently revolving around themes of self-compassion and love, acceptance of death, and memories of past trauma, though the specific details or narrative content differ substantially. The results presented here demonstrate the personalized nature of the subjective experiences elicited through treatment with psilocybin, particularly with respect to the spiritual and/or psychological needs of each patient.
Malone, T. C., Mennenga, S. E., Guss, J., Podrebarac, S. K., Owens, L. T., Bossis, A. P., … & Ross, S. (2018). Individual Experiences in Four Cancer Patients Following Psilocybin-Assisted Psychotherapy. Frontiers in pharmacology9, 256, 10.3389/fphar.2018.00256
Link to full text

Cancer at the Dinner Table: Experiences of Psilocybin-Assisted Psychotherapy for the Treatment of Cancer-Related Distress

Recent randomized controlled trials of psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy for patients with cancer suggest that this treatment results in large-magnitude reductions in anxiety and depression as well as improvements in attitudes toward disease progression and death, quality of life, and spirituality. To better understand these findings, we sought to identify psychological mechanisms of action using qualitative methods to study patient experiences in psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy. Semistructured interviews were conducted with 13 adult participants with clinically elevated anxiety associated with a cancer diagnosis who received a single dose of psilocybin under close clinical supervision. Transcribed interviews were analyzed using interpretative phenomenological analysis, which resulted in 10 themes, focused specifically on cancer, death and dying, and healing narratives. Participants spoke to the anxiety and trauma related to cancer, and perceived lack of available emotional support. Participants described the immersive and distressing effects of the psilocybin session, which led to reconciliations with death, an acknowledgment of cancer’s place in life, and emotional uncoupling from cancer. Participants made spiritual or religious interpretations of their experience, and the psilocybin therapy helped facilitate a felt reconnection to life, a reclaiming of presence, and greater confidence in the face of cancer recurrence. Implications for theory and clinical treatment are discussed.
Swift, T. C., Belser, A. B., Agin-Liebes, G., Devenot, N., Terrana, S., Friedman, H. L., … & Ross, S. (2017). Cancer at the Dinner Table: Experiences of Psilocybin-Assisted Psychotherapy for the Treatment of Cancer-Related Distress. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 0022167817715966.
Link to full text

Therapeutic Applications of Classic Hallucinogens

Abstract

This chapter reviews what is known about the therapeutic uses of the serotonergic or classic hallucinogens, i.e., psychoactive drugs such as LSD and psilocybin that exert their effects primarily through agonist activity at serotonin 2A (5HT2A) receptors. Following a review of the history of human use and scientific study of these drugs, the data from clinical research are summarized, including extensive work on the use of classic hallucinogens in the treatment of alcoholism and other addictions, studies of the use of LSD and psilocybin to relieve distress concerning death, particularly in patients with advanced or terminal cancer, and more limited data concerning the use of classic hallucinogens to treat mood and anxiety disorders. A survey of possible mechanisms of clinically relevant effects is provided. The well-established safety of classic hallucinogens is reviewed. To provide a clinical perspective, case summaries are provided of two individuals who received treatment in recent controlled trials of psilocybin: one being treated for alcoholism, the other suffering from anxiety and depression related to fear of death due to a cancer diagnosis. Although promising early phase research conducted from the 1950s through the early 1970s was discontinued before firm conclusions could be reached concerning the efficacy of any of the classic hallucinogens for any clinical condition, the research that was conducted in that era strongly suggests that classic hallucinogens have clinically relevant effects, particularly in the case of LSD treatment of alcoholism. In the past decade, clinical trials have resumed investigating the effects of classic hallucinogens in the treatment of existential distress in the face of cancer, and in the treatment of addictions including alcoholism and nicotine addiction. The studies that have been completed to date are not sufficient to establish efficacy, but the outcomes have been very encouraging, and larger trials, up to and including phase 3, are now underway or being planned. Although research has elucidated many of the acute neurobiological and psychological effects of classic hallucinogens on humans, animals, and in vitro systems, the mechanisms of clinically relevant persisting effects remain poorly understood.
Bogenschutz, M. P., & Ross, S. (2016). Therapeutic applications of classic hallucinogens. 10.1007/7854_2016_464
Link to full text

Patient Experiences of Psilocybin-Assisted Psychotherapy: An Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis

The psychological mechanisms of action involved in psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy are not yet well understood. Despite a resurgence of quantitative research regarding psilocybin, the current study is the first qualitative study of participant experiences in psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy. Semistructured interviews were carried out with 13 adult participants aged 22 to 69 years (M = 50 years) with clinically elevated anxiety associated with a cancer diagnosis. Participants received a moderate dose of psilocybin and adjunctive psychotherapy with an emphasis on the process of meaning-making. Verbatim transcribed interviews were analyzed by a five-member research team using interpretative phenomenological analysis. General themes found in all or nearly all transcripts included relational embeddedness, emotional range, the role of music as conveyor of experience, meaningful visual phenomena, wisdom lessons, revised life priorities, and a desire to repeat the psilocybin experience. Typical themes found in the majority of transcripts included the following: exalted feelings of joy, bliss, and love; embodiment; ineffability; alterations to identity; a movement from feelings of separateness to interconnectedness; experiences of transient psychological distress; the appearance of loved ones as guiding spirits; and sharing the experience with loved ones posttreatment. Variant themes found in a minority of participant transcripts include lasting changes to sense of identity, synesthesia experiences, catharsis of powerful emotion, improved relationships after treatment, surrender or “letting go,” forgiveness, and a continued struggle to integrate experience. The findings support the conclusion that psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy may provide an effective treatment for psychological distress in cancer patients. Implications for theory and treatment are discussed.

Belser, A. B., Agin-Liebes, G., Swift, T. C., Terrana, S., Devenot, N., Friedman, H. L., … & Ross, S. (2017). Patient experiences of psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy: An interpretative phenomenological analysis. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 0022167817706884.
Link to full text

Rapid and sustained symptom reduction following psilocybin treatment for anxiety and depression in patients with life-threatening cancer: a randomized controlled trial

Abstract

Cancer patients often develop chronic, clinically significant symptoms of depression and anxiety. Previous studies suggest that psilocybin may decrease depression and anxiety in cancer patients. The effects of psilocybin were studied in 51 cancer patients with life-threatening diagnoses and symptoms of depression and/or anxiety. This randomized, double-blind, cross-over trial investigated the effects of a very low (placebo-like) dose (1 or 3 mg/70 kg) vs. a high dose (22 or 30 mg/70 kg) of psilocybin administered in counterbalanced sequence with 5 weeks between sessions and a 6-month follow-up. Instructions to participants and staff minimized expectancy effects. Participants, staff, and community observers rated participant moods, attitudes, and behaviors throughout the study. High-dose psilocybin produced large decreases in clinician- and self-rated measures of depressed mood and anxiety, along with increases in quality of life, life meaning, and optimism, and decreases in death anxiety. At 6-month follow-up, these changes were sustained, with about 80% of participants continuing to show clinically significant decreases in depressed mood and anxiety. Participants attributed improvements in attitudes about life/self, mood, relationships, and spirituality to the high-dose experience, with >80% endorsing moderately or greater increased well-being/life satisfaction. Community observer ratings showed corresponding changes. Mystical-type psilocybin experience on session day mediated the effect of psilocybin dose on therapeutic outcomes.

Ross, S., Bossis, A., Guss, J., Agin-Liebes, G., Malone, T., Cohen, B., … & Su, Z. (2016). Rapid and sustained symptom reduction following psilocybin treatment for anxiety and depression in patients with life-threatening cancer: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 30(12), 1165-1180. 10.1177/0269881116675513
Link to full text

Serotonergic Hallucinogens and Emerging Targets for Addiction Pharmacotherapies

Abstract

• Converging lines of evidence from pharmacologic, electrophysiologic, and behavioral
research in animals strongly suggest that activation of cortical 5-hydroxytryptamine-2A
receptors is the most critical step in initiating a cascade of biological events that accounts
for serotonergic hallucinogen (SH) psychoactive properties.
• Psilocybin produces hyperfrontality with divergent prefrontal–subcortical activation in such
a way as to increase cognitive and affective processing in the context of reduced gating
and reduced focus on external stimulus processing.
• In contrast to all other drugs of abuse, SHs are not considered to be capable of producing
sufficient reinforcing effects to cause dependence (addiction) syndromes.
• Given that SHs increase extracellular glutamate levels and activity in the prefrontal–
limbic circuitry, it is possible that a normalization in functional connectivity in this
network through a glutamate-dependent neuroplastic adaptation could produce an
anti-addictive effect.

Ross, S. (2012). Serotonergic hallucinogens and emerging targets for addiction pharmacotherapies. Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 35(2), 357-374. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.psc.2012.04.002
Link to full text