27 July 2023
QIMR Berghofer researchers are leading a landmark trial of a new psychedelic treatment in combination with psychotherapy for people suffering prolonged and overwhelming grief after losing a loved one to cancer.
The Queensland trial will be one of the first in the world to use psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy to target prolonged grief. Psilocybin, a psychedelic compound found in about 200 species of mushroom, has already been approved in Australia for the use in relation to treatment-resistant depression.
Up to 15 participants are being sought for the pilot study, which will investigate whether the new treatment is acceptable to and safe for people with prolonged grief, specifically in people who have lost a loved one to any form of cancer.
Principal investigator, Associate Professor Vanessa Beesley said they hoped to offer a way forward for people with the debilitating mental health condition, which occurs when symptoms of grief don’t subside after more than a year.
“Prolonged grief can cause really intense and overwhelming suffering, affecting a person’s ability to function at home, work and in their relationships. It essentially leaves them stuck in that early bereavement phase,” A/Prof Beesley said.
“We want to investigate whether psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy can bring some relief and help them live with their loss. We’ve been encouraged by other trials where similar psilocybin interventions were associated with rapid and enduring mental health benefits for people with treatment-resistant depression and end-of-life anxiety.”
The 15-week trial, named Psilocybin-Assisted suppoRtive psychoTherapy IN the treatment of complicated Grief (PARTING), is being conducted with support from Woke Pharmaceuticals.
In addition to being one of the first psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy trials for prolonged grief, it is the first medical research trial in Queensland involving psilocybin.
The trial will see participants undergo three psychotherapy sessions in preparation for one psilocybin dosing session at QIMR Berghofer, in the presence of a psychologist and nurse. Another four psychotherapy sessions will follow in the weeks after.
“It’s really important the intervention is built around structured psychotherapy, so participants can get to know their support team, prepare for dosing day and later unpack the effects with expert guidance,” A/Prof Beesley said.
The psilocybin dosing day will take place over about eight hours, in a private room complete with a bed. A nurse and psychologist will remain with participants as they lay down, put on an eye mask and listen to music tailored to the experience.
“The psychotherapy sessions after dosing day will really be focused on helping participants process their psilocybin experience and any unresolved grief as well as identifying changes the participant might make to their life following the experience.”
Trial Psychiatrist, QIMR Berghofer Visiting Scientist and Director, Research at Metro North Mental Health, Dr Stephen Parker, said the study represented an exciting step for medical research in Queensland and Australia.
“This is a critical trial. There are a lot of people who don’t necessarily benefit and respond to conventional mental health treatments and the hope of something different, something new, is really important,” Dr Parker said.
“The goal is to examine whether this therapy is acceptable, safe and potentially beneficial to people in some way. This will help guide planning of larger studies with a big enough sample to test the effectiveness of this intervention for prolonged grief.”
The PARTING trial is specifically targeting cancer carers because up to 30 per cent are affected by prolonged grief versus about 10 per cent of the general population.
Participation in the trial is open to people who have lost someone to cancer more than 12 months ago, and are experiencing overwhelming symptoms of grief. All participants will go through a thorough screening to ensure they meet medical and psychiatric eligibility requirements. For more information, visit: https://www.qimrberghofer.edu.au/study/parting-trial/.