The physical effects of cancer can be excruciating—nausea, fatigue, and hair loss, to name a few—and are well-documented. But what about the toll on an individual’s mental health and wellbeing? CU Denver psychology professor Jim Grigsby, PhD, in partnership with Stacy Fischer, MD, an internist, palliative care physician, and researcher at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus, and Steve Ross, MD, a psychiatrist at New York University (NYU), are studying an alternative way to ease the psychological distress on late-stage cancer patients: psilocybin-assisted therapy.
The research team is the first-ever to receive funding from the National Cancer Institute—$2.1 million over the next five years—to study the therapeutic use of psilocybin, the active molecule in what are commonly known as magic mushrooms. The study also marks the first of its kind at a university in Colorado and puts CU Denver in the ranks of higher education institutions across the U.S. exploring alternative treatments in healthcare.
“When this [type of study] was done at UCLA [University of California Los Angeles], Johns Hopkins, and NYU, they found some really interesting results,” Grigsby said. “About 70% to 75% of people will have a very profound experience that is often described as either a direct, mystical type of experience or a psychedelic peak experience. And, often, it is that experience which seems to have a therapeutic effect. That’s one of the things we’re going to study in this project.”
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The use of psychedelics for medical treatment isn’t entirely new: In the 1950s and 1960s, hallucinogens, especially psilocybin and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), were studied extensively for their potential in treating a range of psychological conditions, Grigsby said. In Europe and North America, researchers conducted thousands of studies, and despite promising findings, around 1969, then-President Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs” and psychedelics were subsequently outlawed. “Severe penalties for simple possession of LSD and marijuana were initiated, and most research on the medical utility of these drugs was banned for several decades,” Grigsby noted in his research project proposal.
In the past 20 years, Grigsby said, there has been a resurgence of research on the effectiveness of psychedelic-assisted treatment for several disorders, from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to addiction. Grigsby has been part of that work for the past decade. Beginning in 2011, he served as a co-investigator in a phase two Food and Drug Administration (FDA) trial of MDMA (commonly known as ecstasy or molly) for individuals with treatment-resistant PTSD, and in 2021 he co-edited the Handbook of Medical Hallucinogens, the first comprehensive textbook on hallucinogens.
Contrary to widespread belief, the FDA has encouraged researchers to conduct clinical trials of psilocybin to treat depressive disorders as a potentially more effective alternative to conventional antidepressant medications, said Grigsby. And, given that last November Colorado passed a ballot initiative to decriminalize possession of and legalize limited use of psychedelic mushrooms, Grigsby says that now is an optimal time for the research team’s study. They’ve enlisted the help of two CU Denver psychology graduate students, Caroline Harrison and Cate Pappano, and Christianne Biggane, a graduate of CU Denver’s clinical health psychology doctoral program who is now doing a post-doctoral fellow at Anschutz’s Department of Family Medicine. There could be opportunities for undergraduate students to contribute to the study, too.
The study calls for researchers to enroll 100 late-stage cancer patients on both the Anschutz Medical and NYU campuses, which will begin in February. A therapist will first meet with each patient for five to seven hours to get to know the person, explain the process, and prepare them for the study drug session. Then, each patient will participate in a single psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy session for about six or seven hours, in which they will be administered either 25 milligrams of psilocybin or 100 milligrams of niacin as a placebo, and monitored by a licensed therapist. Those who receive the placebo will later have an opportunity to take psilocybin, should they wish to do so.
The researchers will look at the effects of psilocybin in helping to relieve feelings associated with a cancer diagnosis, including hopelessness, existential distress, anxiety, and depression. “[The] therapists sitting next to the person will be minimally directive—you just want to have people turn their attention inward and process whatever comes up,” Grigsby said. “After that, there’s another six or seven hours of follow-up, non-drug integration of the experience.”
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Grigsby discovered his passion for neuroscience in a physiological psychology course he took in college, which led him to pursue a BA in psychology from the University of Kansas and a MA in psychology from the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada. He moved to Colorado to pursue a master’s and PhD in psychology at the University of Colorado Boulder and in 1992 became a research scientist at the CU Denver School of Medicine’s Division of Health Care Policy and Research. In 2008, he moved to CU Denver’s Psychology Department, where he currently does research and teaches neuroscience to clinical health psychology graduate students.
He hopes that this current study shows improvement in the mental state of the participants, and that the findings open doors for more research. Long-term, he’s working on a proposal for an interdisciplinary “Psychedelic Research Program.” He envisions that such a program would be collaborative and could include medical doctors as well as scholars in a number of fields, including anthropology, philosophy, chemistry, and business. “The treatment model becomes very different than the usual approach to depression, for example, and what that means is the way insurance companies cover and pay for it has to be examined,” Grigsby said of the interdisciplinary nature of the research.
Grigsby thinks research like this could pioneer a way for a new era of healing. And his current project on late-stage cancer patients is only the beginning. He wants to study the effectiveness of psychedelic substances, especially for populations that are medically underserved or socially marginalized, in treating a host of neurological disorders, including anorexia, Parkinson’s disease, and seizures. “It’s quite interesting,” Grigsby said, emphasizing: “The safety of these drugs is pretty amazing.”