Estalyn Walcoff arrived at the nondescript beige building in Manhattan's Grammercy Park neighborhood on a balmy August morning, hours before the city would begin to swell with the frenetic energy of summer tourists. She was about to face a similar type of chaos — but only in her mind.
Pushing open the door to the Bluestone Center at the New York University College of Dentistry, Walcoff entered what looked like an average 1970s living room. A low-backed brown couch hugged one wall. On either side, a dark brown table held a homely lamp and an assortment of colorful, hand-painted dishes. A crouching golden Buddha, head perched thoughtfully on its knee, adorned another table closer to the entrance.
Months before, Walcoff had volunteered to participate in a study of how the psychedelic drug psilocybin, the main psychoactive ingredient in magic mushrooms, affects the brain in cancer patients with anxiety and depression. The promising results of that five-year study, published earlier this month, have prompted some researchers to liken the treatment to a "surgical intervention.”
The researchers believe they are on the cusp of nothing less than a breakthrough: A single dose of psychedelic drugs appears to alleviate the symptoms of some of the most common, perplexing, and tragic illnesses of the brain. With depression the leading cause of disability worldwide, the timing seems ideal.
In people like Walcoff, whose depression and anxiety struck them like a powerful blow following a cancer diagnosis, one dose of psilocybin seemed to quiet her existential dread, to remind her of her connectedness with the world around her, and perhaps most importantly, to reassure her of her place in it.
And these results don't seem to be limited to people with cancer or another life-threatening illness. Participants in a handful of other psychedelic studies consistently ranked their trip as one of their most meaningful life experiences — not only because of the trip itself, but because of the changes they appear to produce in their lives in the months and years afterward.
Still, the existing research is limited — which is why, scientists say, they so badly need permission from the government to do more.
1990 was a year of life and death for Clark Martin. It was the year his daughter was born and the year he was diagnosed with cancer.
Over the next twenty years, as his daughter took her first steps, experienced her first day of school, and eventually began growing into a smart, fiercely independent teenager, doctors waged a blitzkrieg on Martin's body. Six surgeries. Two experimental treatments. Thousands of doctor's visits. The cancer never went into remission, but Martin and his doctors managed to keep it in check by staying vigilant, always catching the disease just as it was on the brink of spreading.
Still, the cancer took its toll. Martin was riddled with anxiety and depression. He'd become so focused on saving his body from the cancer that he hadn't made time for the people and things in his life that really mattered. His relationships were in shambles; he and his daughter barely spoke.