When 55-year-old California software developer Pam Sakuda was diagnosed with metastic colon cancer and given six to 14 months to live, she took antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications to help her cope with the fear and uncertainty of such a diagnosis.
By the time Sakuda underwent surgery in 2002, her cancer had spread throughout her body. She embarked on grueling nonstop chemotherapy as she continued to live beyond doctors' expectations.
"There was a tremendous amount of stress, and we were getting more nervous," said Sakuda's husband, Norbert Litzinger, a retired operations manager. "When you have a death sentence and it doesn't come, it puts even more pressure on. What is the future? It's pervasive and it overcomes you."
But all that changed in January 2005 when Sakuda participated with 12 other adults who had advanced-stage cancer in a UCLA study on the use of hallucinogens to treat end-of-life anxiety. They were all given psilocybin, the hallucinogenic compound in "magic mushrooms."
The results were published today in the journal General Psychiatry. Sponsored by the Heffter Research Institute and the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute, the research found that psilocyn had a positive effect on mood and anxiety.
Sakuda died Nov. 10, 2006, but for nearly two years after her psilocybin treatment, she lived life fully, exercising with weights, going to music concerts, even hiking the north rim of the Grand Canyon, according to her husband.
"It was an absolutely tragic situation," said Litzinger. "But the treatment allowed her to have 22 months filled with joy. She died at our home in my arms with her cat. The Saturday before her death she was at a fundraiser giving a speech, and had hiked 15 miles three weeks before that."
Psilocybin, an alkaloid compound in the tryptamine family, is produced by hundreds of species of fungi and acts on the serotonin receptors in the part of the brain responsible for nonverbal imagery and emotion.
Its mind-altering effects have been used by indigenous cultures, including Native American culture, for centuries, but research using hallucinogens was stopped in the early 1970s after the drugs had been popularized by Dr. Timothy Leary.
"Everything was shut down after the tremendous cultural and political upheaval associated with the counterculture, and there were some legitimate public concerns about disseminating drugs to society and the large number of young people who got themselves into trouble," said Dr. Charles Grob, a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center.
"But now, 40 years later, society has reached a point where it is sufficiently mature to handle these compounds in a safe and structured manner," said Grob.
Grob said the UCLA study has helped demonstrate the safety and efficacy of psilocybin in palliative treatments for the "psychological, spiritual and existential crises" brought on by a terminal illness.
The researchers hope to get funding for more studies.