Psychoactive drugs have been gaining attention as possible use to treat mental disorders, especially for patients suffering from life-threatening diseases such as cancer. Although the use of these drugs is still a subject of debate, reported results from clinical studies have shown promise.

Although yet to be proven on a larger scale, there is increasing evidence that some psychoactive drugs can be used to treat certain mental disorders such as anxiety, depression and PTSD. Such drugs may also help cancer patients whose diagnoses have resulted in similar symptoms.

1. Magic mushrooms as antidepressants

New studies have shown that a single dose of psilocybin, the active ingredient of magic mushrooms, can lift the anxiety and depression experienced by people with advanced cancer for six months or even longer.

In a small study by researchers at NYU Langone Medical Center, 29 patients with cancer-related anxiety and depression were given either a single dose of psilocybin or a vitamin placebo called niacin. Seven weeks later, they were given the opposite with neither patients nor researchers knowing who had received psilocybin or the placebo first.

By the end of the study, "we found that psilocybin was a rapid, immediately acting anti-anxiety and antidepressant," said Dr. Stephen Ross, director of substance abuse services and associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry at NYU Langone and the study’s lead author.

83% of patients who were first given psilocybin still experienced an antidepressant response seven weeks later, compared with 14% who were given niacin. Researchers said that no adverse effects were reported, outside of headaches or migraines, nausea, and transient anxiety or discomfort.

After all patients had received psilocybin, about 60% to 80% continued to experience antidepressant or anti-anxiety benefits even after more than six months.

2. MDMA to treat PTSD

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have approved phase three trials of MDMA to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is common among military veterans, victims of sexual abuse and refugees. This will be the final phase of validation that is required in order to turn the party drug into a legal medicine.

MDMA treatment will involve patients taking the drug three times, once a month, during long talking therapy sessions. It is interspersed with weekly sessions without the patient taking the drug. MDMA along with heroin and LSD have shown encouraging results in patients with treatment-resistant PTSD.

“Moving from phase two to phase three shows we have strong scientific reason to believe that MDMA is an effective treatment for PTSD in therapy. The fact the FDA is ready to move forward with phase three signals that they agree,” said Brad Burge, from the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (Maps), a not-for-profit organisation based in California.

Maps has spearheaded efforts to turn MDMA into a medicine. If the clinical trials go well, MDMA could be legalised as soon as 2021 in the US, providing a novel way to treat those battling with PTSD.

3. Marijuana to treat cancer-related mental stress

The use of marijuana to treat the negative side effects of chemotherapy and the mental stress associated with the disease is still the subject of debate.

However, a 2014 poll by Medscape and WebMD showed that more than 75% of American physicians believe that there are therapeutic benefits for marijuana use; with 82% of oncologists agreeing that marijuana should be offered as a treatment option.

Dr. Donald Abrams, chief of hematology-oncology at San Francisco General Hospital and a professor of clinical medicine at the University of California said marijuana is “the only anti-nausea medicine that increases appetite.”

He further stated that it helps patients sleep and elevates their mood, a difficult feat when someone has a life-threatening illness. “I could write six different prescriptions, all of which may interact with each other or the chemotherapy that the patient has been prescribed. Or I could just recommend trying one medicine,” Abrams says.

A review of the findings of 79 studies on cannabinoids, accounting for 6,462 patients, found that most reported improvements to symptoms compared with patients in placebo groups. However, the researchers also stated that the improvements were not statistically significant with a number of patients reporting adverse effects from the drug, including dizziness, disorientation, confusion and hallucinations.

Other studies have argued that marijuana use may be linked to other forms of mental disease. This is may be related to the more than 85 cannabinoids in marijuana, of which only two (tetrahydrocannabinol and cannabidiol) have been studied.

Dr. David Casarett, a professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine stated that how cannabinoids work together is still much of mystery. As with this and many other psychoactive drugs, far more research is needed on its specific therapeutic benefits to provide solid evidence for clinicians to help their patients make informed decisions on treatment options. MIMS

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