Demystifying Medicine One Month at a Time

Tag: cancer

Mushrooms: Magic?

3/22/2013--Shelton, WA, USA Pioppini mushrooms (Agrocybe aegerita) from Fungi Perfecti. Paul Stamets, 57, is an American mycologist, author, and advocate of bioremediation and medicinal mushrooms and owner of Fungi Perfecti, a family run business that specializes in making gourmet and medicinal mushrooms. ©2013 Stuart Isett. All rights reserved.

©2013 Stuart Isett.

In ‘study of the week’ news, major media outlets reported on two small studies looking at the possible benefits of the chemical psilocybin, the ingredient found in psychedelic mushrooms.

Both studies were conducted in volunteers with cancer, who also had concomitant depression and anxiety–assumed related to their cancer.

The interesting headline-grabbing finding was that after a single dose (“trip”) with psilocybin, a majority of patients in both trials reported improved mood, decreases in mental health symptoms, and positive experiences with the drug (i.e. good trips).

Here’s the kicker: 6 months after their trips, without additional drug, many of the study participants still reported improved mental health.

Study 1 was conducted at NYU and involved 29 patients. The study found that at 6.5 months, “60-80% of the participants continued with clinical significant reductions in depression or anxiety.”

The second study was conducted at Johns Hopkins, involved 51 patients, and had similar findings. Note how the second study describes the orchestration of its sessions:

Psilocybin sessions

Drug sessions were conducted in an aesthetic living-room-like environment with two monitors present. Participants were instructed to consume a low-fat breakfast before coming to the research unit. A urine sample was taken to verify abstinence from common drugs of abuse (cocaine, benzodiazepines, and opioids including methadone)….

For most of the time during the session, participants were encouraged to lie down on the couch, use an eye mask to block external visual distraction, and use headphones through which a music program was played. The same music program was played for all participants in both sessions. Participants were encouraged to focus their attention on their inner experiences throughout the session. Thus, there was no explicit instruction for participants to focus on their attitudes, ideas, or emotions related to their cancer.

Both studies appeared in the Journal of Psychopharmacology. While I agree this news is of general interest, I think the media reporting on the studies is overly sensational. Many doubts remain about the safety of psilocybin. Cancer patients–and indeed the lay public–are vulnerable to this sort of unchecked hype. Issues unaddressed:

  • Negative effects of psilocybin (i.e. no reporting on any adverse effects)–which were listed in the studies
  • Cost
  • Alternatives
  • Small sample sizes in the studies

Overall, I’m glad that researchers are reconsidering ideas long thought too risky or out of bounds. But more science needs to be done before psilocybin is ready for mainstream use.

Watchful Waiting

The tincture of time can cut both ways...

NPR has a great blog on their website called “Shots” about current events in health care. Last week Scott Hensley, the main blogger there, posted about a recent article on treatment of prostate cancer from the Archives of Internal Medicine.

If you look at the article, you may notice a very small subheading above the article’s title. It reads “Less is More.”

Very telling.

The thrust of the article and the subsequent blog post is that men diagnosed with prostate cancer that have PSA values of less than 4.0 nanograms per milliliter of blood (“ng/mL”, the standard measurement) usually opt for treatment of their cancer, even though their cancer may not necessarily harm them.

What’s that, you say? How can cancer not harm someone?

This is an extremely vexing issue in the world of medicine, so it bears exploring.

Most importantly, it’s important to understand that “Cancer” is not one disease. This is perhaps the most commonly repeated media misconception, as when talking heads go to commercial break and say, “Coming up next: Scientists at Yada Yada U. claim that they have the cure for cancer. Is it true? Stay tuned to find out.”

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