Magic mushrooms as therapy for long-term HIV survivors?
Psilocybin, the psychedelic compound found in so-called “magic mushrooms,” has been used successfully to ease the psychological pain, suffering and complicated grief of people diagnosed with life-threatening cancer. Now, research being conducted at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), in the Bonding and Attunement in Neuropsychiatric Disorders Lab, is investigating if psilocybin combined with group therapy can be used to improve the mental health of long-term HIV survivors.
“The type of talk therapy used in this study has been found to be helpful for people who have existential distress and mental health consequences of living with a serious medical illness. Psilocybin can help people experience their emotions in a different way. We want to know if long-term AIDS survivors who are suffering from complicated grief, depression, hopelessness, helplessness or isolation can use psilocybin with group therapy to help ease certain mental health conditions,” said Brian Anderson, MD, MSc, resident physician at the Department of Psychiatry at UCSF.
The study is a total of five and a half months long. The study will not involve people taking psilocybin immediately before or during group therapy, clarified Anderson. Participants will complete four group therapy sessions spaced about one week apart. Then, the therapy sessions will pause while all participants complete individual experimental drug treatment sessions. Then, an additional four group therapy sessions will be held.
“As a group, participants will be able to talk about what they went through [during the psilocybin treatment] and the thoughts and feelings that came up for them. And how to make sense of those emotions in their lives,” said Anderson.
Psilocybin is a psychoactive substance that is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a medication, so can only be used in research settings. People who take psilocybin may experience visual and auditory illusions and other alterations of mood and thinking.
It can also can also cause people to think more deeply about their memories, remember them with more clarity or remember things that they may have forgotten about, said Anderson. For that reason, the drug can be helpful for people who need or want to process their lived experience or emotions more fully.
“The experience appears to be deeply meaningful spiritually and personally, and very healing in the context of people’s understanding of their illness and how they manage that going forward,” said Roland Griffiths, PhD, in an interview with Scientific American. Griffiths, a clinical pharmacologist at Johns Hopkins studied the effect of psilocybin and limited psychological counseling on people with life-threatening cancer who were undergoing grueling medical treatments.
Long-term HIV survivors, said Anderson, are a group of people who may be particularly helped by this type of treatment.
“People who have been living with HIV for many years have likely lost many friends and loved ones to the epidemic. They may still be suffering from emotional trauma, grief and anger over losing so many people—even 20 or 30 years later. And, if they’ve lost their social networks to HIV and AIDS, they may be suffering from social isolation. The goal of this treatment is to help people heal but also to build cohesion and mutual support among group members.”
The first study, which is anticipated to enroll participants this fall, will be a small safety and feasibility study for gay-identified men, over age 50 who are living with HIV. If this first small study shows their approach of combining psilocybin and group therapy to be feasible, Anderson said that a larger study including a greater diversity of participants will be planned.
The psilocybin-assisted group therapy study is being conducted at UCSF by Principal Investigator Joshua Wooley, MD, PhD. Find more information or learn how to join the study.
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