The three-year study, "Effects of Psilocybin on Anxiety and Psychosocial Distress in Advanced Cancer Patients," is being privately funded by the Zurich-based Heffter Research Institute , which promotes the use of psychedelics for the alleviation of suffering. Fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), it adheres to rigorous safety guidelines and protocols.
Researchers hope that it will one day lead to reclassification of Schedule 1 hallucinogens so that doctors may prescribe them to patients for palliative care, depression and even addiction.
"It's daunting working with people in the midst of death," said principal investigator Dr. Stephen Ross, assistant professor of psychiatry and director of the NYU Langone Center of Excellence on Addiction. "To help people to have a good death, and not more chemotherapy, to prepare for the final part of life and to die with dignity and do it in a way that they are not frightened, that is one of the most important endeavors as a physician."
Ross and his colleagues are looking for 32 patients who are willing to participate in the random, double-blind study. To be eligible, patients must be 18 to 76 years old with the diagnosis of a "potentially life-threatening disease" or advanced or recurrent cancer who are displaying symptoms of acute stress, anxiety or adjustment disorder due to their disease.
Patients are screened carefully -- those with psychotic spectrum disorders, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and severe depression cannot participate.
"Mysticism is really the cornerstone of all major religions going back millennia," said co-principal investigator Anthony Bossis , professor of psychiatry and anesthesiology at the NYU School of Medicine.
"It is characterized by a sense of unity, transcendence, connecting to the broader universe and a sense of life and the promotion of personal spirituality," he said. "It recalibrates how we see our life and gives a sense of sacredness and reshapes how we view death."
A mystical experience can help root patients like Nicky more in the present, according to Bossis. "People with cancer can spend their final days and months not anxious and improvement in quality of life is attainable," he said. "These experiences have the potential to do that."
Scientists across the country have shown a renewed interest in the medical uses of hallucinogens. So far, 80 to 90 patients have had similar experiences in studies on psilocybin at other universities including Johns Hopkins and UCLA.
In a study on 36 patients at Johns Hopkins, researchers looked at the effects of psilocybin on depression. At the 14-month follow-up, more than 60 percent of volunteers rated the experience as among the five most meaningful and spiritually significant of their lives; 58 percent reported a "complete" mystical experience.
"We have come a long way in pain management with the use of opiods , but the sheer anxiety is so hard to address in a medical setting," said Bossis, a clinical psychologist whose specialty is end-of-life care.
"The heart of this study is to address these levels of suffering and get at the existential [fear] of not being here any longer that we all face," he said. "We provide an empirical experience where the patient goes into a journey -- his own journey -- and can find resolution and peace and transformation and return back here to integrate it into their lives."