Sunday, April 6, 2014

Taking A Good Trip Away From Despair

Non-Conventional Drugs

Magic Mushrooms: Researchers at New York University are looking at the efficacy of psilocybin,
the psychoactive ingredient in hallucinogenic mushrooms, to relieve recurrent feelings of despair
and anxiety in people who have had to deal with cancer.
Credit: Getty
Source: Aeon

An article, by Linda Marsa,  in Aeon looks at the efficacy of using psychedelics in lessening despair and anxiety common to many cancer patients, even years after treatment, the chief fear being that cancer will return—a fear not without merit.

Marsa writes about a study at New York University:
On a bone-chilling morning in February last year, Nick Fernandez bundled up and took the subway from his Manhattan apartment to the Bluestone Center for Clinical Research, which is located in an art deco-style building on the Lower East Side. A 27-year-old graduate student in psychology with dark, wavy hair and delicate, bird-like features, Fernandez was excited and nervous. He had eaten a light breakfast consisting of a bagel and industrial-strength coffee in preparation for another journey he was about to take. Fernandez had signed up to be a subject in a New York University study into the use of psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient in hallucinogenic mushrooms, to relieve mental anguish in people with terminal or recurrent cancer.
Fernandez hoped that the drug would lift the shroud of melancholy and free-floating anxiety that had enveloped him ever since he was diagnosed with leukemia in 2004 during his senior year in high school. Two and a half years of almost continuous chemotherapy vanquished the disease, but left him drained and traumatised. The former soccer star dropped more than 50 lbs from an already lean frame. ‘It was pretty brutal and forces you to grow up fast,’ said Fernandez, who became intensely interested in spiritual philosophy during this period, and went on to dabble in psychedelics in college. For years afterward, every sneeze and sniffle, every day that he felt tired or out of sorts, filled him with an unshakeable dread that the cancer had returned. When he heard the study mentioned on a radio show, he immediately signed up.
Jeffrey Guss and Erin Zerbo, the two NYU psychiatrists who would quietly monitor Fernandez’s progress throughout the day, greeted him when he arrived. After they took his vital signs, Fernandez changed into sweat pants and a shirt, and settled into a converted dental exam room that had been transformed into a hippie-style sanctum: tricked out with fresh flowers and fruits, a comfy sofa littered with plush pillows, Buddhist and shamanistic totems, and a high-tech sound system. Stephen Ross, an associate professor of psychiatry at NYU and the lead investigator for the study, made a brief appearance in the trip room. He was holding a glass vial that had been retrieved earlier that morning from a massive safe located inside a high-security storage room. It contained a single white capsule, and no one could be sure if it was a placebo – a dummy pill – or a 30 milligram dose of synthesised psilocybin.
What happened to Fernandez in the study is fairly typical, and consistent with a century’s worth of literature, scientific and otherwise, on the use of psychedelics. ‘Patients would tell me that they’ll never be able to get out from under the rock that hangs over them and that their psyche is always filled with the fact they have cancer,’ Stephen Ross said. ‘But those feelings evaporated under the influence of psilocybin. They almost uniformly experienced a dramatic reduction in existential anxiety and depression, and an increased acceptance of the cancer, and the changes lasted a year or more and in some cases were permanent.’
The NYU study will ultimately encompass 32 volunteers, making it the largest study of psychedelic medicine in more than 40 years. Test results haven’t yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, but the interim data analysis of their first 25 patients was encouraging. What they found confirmed the findings of a smaller pilot project at the University of California, Los Angeles. Ross and his colleagues are now looking ahead to larger clinical trials at NYU and several other sites using psilocybin for cancer patients, and to test psychedelics as treatments for drug addiction, alcoholism and even cigarette smoking.
Cancer is treated, but not cured. There are no cures for cancer, and all cancer patents have to find some way to deal with this immutable fact. It is hard to explain to others, particularly healthy individuals, the range of feelings and emotions that cancer patients have, even months and years after treatment; a recurring thought is that the cancer will return, and thus will the grueling treatment regime. (Marsa writes: "For years afterward, every sneeze and sniffle, every day that he felt tired or out of sorts, filled him with an unshakeable dread that the cancer had returned.")

If medical science has as one of its chief aims, the reduction in pain and suffering that humans undergo, then it follows that all avenues ought to be studied and considered, including non-conventional or controversial ones. The history of ideas shows that at one time, all treatments are controversial before they become accepted and conventional. Then lauded.

You can read the rest of the article at [Aeon]