Serotonergic hallucinogens in the treatment of anxiety and depression in patients suffering from a life-threatening disease: A systematic review

This systematic review (2018) of 11 clinical trials (n=445) found that psychedelics (LSD, psilocybin) reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety in patients with life-threatening diseases (end-of-life).


Anxiety and depression are some of the most common psychiatric symptoms of patients suffering with life-threatening diseases, often associated with a low quality of life and a poor overall prognosis. 5-HT2A-receptor agonists (serotonergic hallucinogens, ‘psychedelics’) like lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and psilocybin were first investigated as therapeutic agents in the 1960s. Recently, after a long hiatus period of regulatory obstacles, interest in the clinical use of these substances has resumed. The current article provides a systematic review of studies investigating psychedelics in the treatment of symptoms of existential distress in life-threatening diseases across different periods of research, highlighting how underlying concepts have developed over time. A systematic search for clinical trials from 1960 to 2017 revealed 11 eligible clinical trials involving a total number of N = 445 participants, of which 7 trials investigated the use of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) (N = 323), 3 trials investigated the use of psilocybin (N = 92), and one trial investigated the use of dipropyltryptamine (DPT) (N = 30). The 4 more recent randomized controlled trials (RCTs) (N = 104) showed a significantly higher methodological quality than studies carried out in the 1960s and 1970s. Evidence supports that patients with life threatening diseases associated with symptoms of depression and anxiety benefit from the anxiolytic and antidepressant properties of serotonergic hallucinogens. Some studies anecdotally reported improvements in patients´ quality of life and reduced fear of death. Moreover, low rates of side effects were reported in studies that adhered to safety guidelines. Further studies are needed to determine how these results can be transferred into clinical practice.

Authors: Simon Reiche, Leo Hermle, Stefan Gutwinski, Henrik Jungaberle, Peter Gasser & Tomislav Majić


This paper is included in our ‘Top 10 Articles Introducing Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy

Highlights from the authors:

  • “Serotonergic hallucinogens are investigated for the treatment of anxiety associated with life-threatening diseases
  • Trials show anxiolytic and anti-depressant effects after single administration
  • Different mechanisms of action were suggested for the therapeutic aspects
  • Substances exhibited a reasonable safety profile in a clinical setting
  • Additional studies are needed to determine use in clinical practice”

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