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Can Psilocybin Help Treat PTSD?

written by NYU medical bioethics department

While therapy, antidepressants, and antipsychotics help many patients, these methods often fall short. Studies have suggested that antidepressants do not work well for people who have had multiple traumas over the course of years or chronic PTSD. A new study found that the antipsychotic risperidone worked no better than a placebo in alleviating typical PTSD symptoms in patients who had the disorder long-term or who continued to experience symptoms after being treated with antidepressants.

Because these drugs can also cause intolerable side effects, many patients are left to experience PTSD with no sign of relief. Many of these patients turn to substance abuse, develop anger management issues, or commit suicide. A study analyzing data from the National Comorbidity Survey showed that out of six anxiety diagnoses, PTSD was significantly associated with suicide attempts.

There is some evidence in animal studies to show that psilocybin, the psychedelic compound found in “magic mushrooms,” may act by stimulating nerve cell regrowth in parts of the brain responsible for emotion and memory. A 2013 study from the University of South Florida. Opens in a new tab found that psilocybin stimulates neurogenesis—the growth and repair of brain cells in the hippocampus, which is the brain’s center for emotion and memory. In the study, mice that were given psilocybin overcame fear conditioning far better than mice that were given a placebo. The study supported the hypothesis that psilocybin can help break the traumatic cycle that occurs in patients with PTSD.

Stephen Ross, MD. Opens in a new tab, a psychiatrist at NYU Langone, conducted a study on terminally ill cancer patients. Opens in a new tab , and found that one-time treatment with psilocybin very quickly brought relief from distress that had lasted more than 6 months in 80 percent of study subjects.

In Dr. Ross’s study, half of the participants were randomly assigned to receive psilocybin. The rest received a control drug of niacin, which is known to produce a “rush” similar to that associated with a hallucinogenic drug experience. Halfway through the seven-week study period, all of the participants switched treatments. Neither the researchers nor the patients knew which patients had first received psilocybin or which received the control. All of the patients, mostly women, had advanced gastrointestinal, blood, or breast cancers and had been diagnosed as having serious psychological distress related to their disease.

Patients noted that after being treated with psilocybin, they felt their quality of life improve. They noted that they wanted to engage more with external activities, had more energy, experienced improved relationships with their family members, and performed better at work. The researchers concluded that if psilocybin could reduce psychological distress in terminally ill cancer patients, it could apply to less extreme medical conditions related to psychological distress as well.

Dr. Ross says that the findings “…have the potential to transform the care of cancer patients with psychological and existential distress, but beyond that, it potentially provides a completely new model in psychiatry of a medication that works rapidly as both an antidepressant and anxiolytic and has sustained benefit for months.” Dr. Ross has hope that the drug will become legal in the next five years. “If larger clinical trials prove successful, then we could ultimately have available a safe, effective, and inexpensive medication—dispensed under strict control—to alleviate the distress that increases suicide rates among cancer patients.”

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