Using psilocybin to treat mental illness in cancer patients

[ By on January 05, 2017 ]

Recent studies have shown that psilocybin, the drug found in psilocybin mushrooms, could be used to treat depression in cancer patients. In one study, conducted by N.Y.U., researchers administered synthetic psilocybin or a placebo to 29 cancer patients suffering from depression or anxiety. Patients were thoroughly educated about the drug. Then, two people would monitor the patients for the duration of the hallucinogen’s effects. A specific playlist was put together for the patients, and the songs were chosen by pace to match the projected intensity of the high at the time at which they would be played. Psychotherapists encouraged participants in the study to write down their visions in a journal in order to help them remember the experience. Once the effects of the psilocybin wore off, the patients were required to be evaluated. The next day, researchers assessed the patients, and the majority immediately saw a great improvement in mental health. A study conducted and Johns Hopkins, which followed the same procedure without journal entries and used a different music playlist, displayed the same results. In conclusion, the study showed that psilocybin is an effective treatment for depression and anxiety in patients, and it offers immediate results. This is more than a lot of benefits that current antidepressants and anxiety medications have to offer.

While experimental studies like that one seem promising, this form of treatment raises many ethical questions, mainly regarding legality and safety. Both the recreational and medicinal use of psilocybin is strictly illegal in the U.S. Furthermore, the participants of the experimental study were educated about the drug, closely monitored, placed in a safe environment. Without such precautions, the drug can potentially lead to harmful side effects and dangerous behavior. Following a utilitarian framework, the study could swing both ways. A rule utilitarian would find it unethical because the law is supposed to bear the interest of the majority in mind, leading to the greatest outcome for the greatest number of people. However, and act utilitarian could either argue that legalizing the drug would benefit a large group of people without much risk or that it could lead to unmonitored and unsafe recreational use. A Kantian scholar would say that the use of psilocybin to treat mental illness in cancer patients does not pass the categorical imperative, because then healthy people might abuse the drug for its hallucinogenic properties. Overall, not enough information is known about the effects of the drug to deem it safe for medicinal use, and more studies must be conducted to come to a clear conclusion.


Trackback URL

4 Comments on “Using psilocybin to treat mental illness in cancer patients”

  1. zstorz18

    I appreciate the multiple ethical frameworks within which you considered this issue. I wonder if we should treat psilocybin use differently from the use of other highly regulated medications, though? There are many medications that are only used under strict supervision; chemotherapy comes to mind. Is psilocybin different? Or do we just think of it differently because it’s currently illegal? That is, is there an ethical or medical difference, or just a difference inherited from whoever made the drug illegal?

  2. zstorz18

    It sounds reasonable to me to continue to test the positive effects of this substance on the mental state of people with terminal illnesses despite the risks associated with improper use by well people or sick people. Cancer patients suffer so much, and giving them access to something that when used safely provides immediate relief (when used safely) could be good. The duration of the positive effects should be considered in the cost-benefit analysis. All drugs have the potential for misuse, but that does not mean that we should avoid them altogether.

  3. zstorz18

    It appears that there is an immediate quantifiable positive effect with the drug. Is there any information about how this drug might affect a person using it multiple times? It is probable it would be administered to an individual more than once if it is deemed effective, and short-term vs. long-term use of any medication can yield very different results on the body, the brain, and mood. It might be worth it to make specific mention of this in the discussion.

  4. zstorz18

    Hmm, I’m wondering why each of the trials did not conduct additional trials with _just_ psilocybin or _just_ music. Seems like they didn’t rule out some potential variables, one of which is the subjectivity of the choices for the playlist.

    I’m appreciating your application of different perspectives, which rings with a welcome clarity. When reading your statement about a ‘rule utilitarian’, however, mentioning legalizing it for the majority seems an error: the majority aren’t dealing with cancer, so by this logic the rule utilitarian perspective is flawed. Perhaps the rule utilitarian would see the need for a defined rule that limits psilocybin application to specific uses, such as the one investigated, which would then apply the ‘benefit to the majority’.

    Thank you for posting this to a blog for commentary and inviting inquiry!

Hi Stranger, reply with your thoughts:

Allowed XHTML tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>