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Researchers are testing whether psychedelic drugs can help dying patients face their fear of death, The New York Times reports.

Charles Grob, a psychiatrist and researcher at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, has tested psilocybin, an active component of magic mushrooms, in end-stage cancer patients. In a study published in 2011 in the Archives of General Psychiatry, he found giving the drug to terminally ill patients could be done safely, while reducing their anxiety and depression about dying.

There are two ongoing studies using psilosybin with dying patients, one at New York University, and another at Johns Hopkins University.

Scientists are not sure how psilocybin reduces anxiety about death, for weeks and even months after the treatment. “I don’t really have altogether a definitive answer as to why the drug eases the fear of death, but we do know that from time immemorial individuals who have transformative spiritual experiences come to a very different view of themselves and the world around them and thus are able to handle their own deaths differently,” Grob said.

Dr. John Halpern of McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, has used Ecstasy to ease anxiety about dying in two patients with Stage 4 cancer.

This research is part of a larger effort to study hallucinogens and other illicit drugs as possible treatments for conditions including post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic pain, addiction and depression.

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