Pamela Sakuda, 57, was anxious and depressed. After two years of intensive chemotherapy for late-stage colon cancer, and having outlived her prognosis by several months, she’d finally lost hope. She was living in fear and was worried how her impending death would affect her husband.Sakuda’s doctor prescribed antidepressants, but they didn’t do any good. So, at her wits’ end and feeling that she had nothing to lose, Sakuda volunteered for an experimental depression treatment being studied at UCLA.
In January 2005, with a pair of trained therapists at her side, Sakuda took a pill of psilocybin — a hallucinogen better known as the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms.”
It may seem far-fetched that a psychedelic drug associated with muddy hippies at Woodstock would help a cancer patient at a university hospital. Yet it’s an increasingly familiar scene.
Although mind-bending drugs such as psilocybin are still used most often by people looking to get high, researchers around the country have begun to explore whether these and other illegal drugs can help treat intractable depression, anxiety, and other mental-health problems.
In the past month alone, studies have been published on the benefits of MDMA (better known as Ecstasy) in people with post-traumatic stress disorder and on the fast-acting antidepressive effects of the club drug ketamine (aka “Special K”). The study in which Sakuda took part is scheduled to appear in a major journal in early September. So far the studies have been small, but the results have been encouraging and bigger trials are on the horizon.
Drugs such as psilocybin and Ecstasy can be dangerous in the wrong hands. But when taken under professional supervision and combined with therapy, researchers say, just one or two doses can help patients unlock the sources of their troubles and experience therapeutic breakthroughs that otherwise might take months or years…