ATLANTA — Emory University researchers are looking into using psychedelic drugs as a possible treatment for major depressive disorder.
Participants will take a single dose of psilocybin, the mind-altering compound in “magic mushrooms.”
Dinah Bazer, who participated in a similar study at New York University in 2012, is an ovarian cancer survivor. As she approached the two-year mark of being cancer free, she became consumed with anxiety.
“'I was overwhelmed with fear and anxiety that this thing would come back,” she said.
A nurse at her doctor’s office told her about the clinical study in which researchers used psilocybin to treat cancer-related anxiety.
After undergoing several weeks of therapy, she took a psilocybin capsule and laid back.
At first, she said the experience was frightening. Then, she reached out to the therapists in the room with her.
“He took my hand and he said, ‘Just go with it,’” recalled Bazer. “After a while, I saw my fear. It was a black mass. It was not the cancer. It was the fear, the anxiety.”
Bazer said she yelled at the fear to leave -- and it did.
“It was gone. All the fear, all the anxiety. It was gone, and it's still gone,” she said.
“I began to feel love, this all-enveloping love,” said Bazer. “All of a sudden during this psilocybin experience, I realized change is an opportunity. My whole attitude changed right there.”
According to a follow-up study from NYU nearly five years after the original, about 60 to 80 percent of participants experienced clinically significant reductions in depression or anxiety, sustained benefits in existential distress and quality of life and improved attitudes toward death.
Now, Emory University is participating in another study, led by COMPASS Pathways, aimed at people with major depressive disorder who haven’t responded to other treatments.
“We’re constantly trying to find alternative ways of helping those people overcome their depression,” said Dr. Boadie Dunlop, the psychiatrist leading Emory’s research.
Dunlop believed that psilocybin could re-frame one’s thinking.
“It can help people transform the way they understand their connectedness to the world, what they're going through in a way that reduces the distress,” he said.
After taking the capsule, the study participant has the option of putting on an eye mask before they lie down for a four- to six-hour psychotropic experience.
Similar to Bazer’s experience, therapists will monitor each participant for the whole time.
Dunlop said this research was part of the first placebo-controlled study of psilocybin to treat depression.
“As opposed to chronically dosing a pill, we have a one-time intense transformative experience, that through the addition of therapy, helps people sustain a new way of thinking about their lives that reduces depressive symptoms,” said Dunlop.
But Dunlop emphasized the importance of clinical oversight, warning of the risks of self-medicating.
“My biggest concern is people are going to think, ‘Oh, I’ll just buy some magic mushrooms and I’ll be able to get over my depression.’ That is exactly not what we are doing; we are doing carefully-delivered therapy in addition to that,” he explained.
Bazer told Regan that she would never use psilocybin on her own.
“If you think you have a problem and you think this will solve it, it would be foolish just to go and down these mushrooms with no guidance,” she said.
If research from Emory and the other sites participating in the COMPASS Pathways study show success, it could one day become legal to prescribe psilocybin for use in a clinical setting.
According to Dunlop, however, that outcome is still several years away.
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