12.08.2006

Johns Hopkins Study: Psychedelics Work
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Volunteers who tried the hallucinogenic ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms during a controlled study funded by the U.S. government had "mystical" experiences, and many of them still felt unusually happy months later.

The aims of the Johns Hopkins researchers were simple: to explore the neurological mechanisms and effects of the compound, as well as its potential as a therapeutic agent.

Although psilocybin -- the hallucinogenic agent in the Psilocybe family of mushrooms -- first gained notoriety more than 40 years ago, it has rarely been studied because of the controversy surrounding its use.

This latest finding, which sprang from a rigorously designed trial, moves the hallucinogen's effect closer to the hazy border separating hard science and religious mysticism.

"More than 60 percent of the volunteers reported effects of their psilocybin session that met the criteria for a 'full mystical experience' as measured by well-established psychological scales," said lead researcher Roland Griffiths, a professor in the departments of neuroscience, psychiatry and behavioral biology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

What's more, most of the 36 adult participants -- none of whom had taken psilocybin before -- counted their experience while under the influence of the drug as "among the most meaningful and spiritually significant experiences of their lives," Griffiths said. Most said they became better, kinder, happier people in the weeks after the psilocybin session -- a fact corroborated by family and friends.

The researchers also noted no permanent brain damage or negative long-term effects stemming from use of psilocybin.

But the study, published in a recent issue of Psychopharmacology, did not neglect the hallucinogen's "dark side."

Even though the candidates for the landmark study were carefully screened to reduce their vulnerability and closely monitored during the trial, "We still had 30 percent of them reporting periods of very significant fear or anxiety which could easily escalate into panic and dangerous behavior if this were given in any other kind of circumstances," Griffiths said.

"We simply don't know what causes a 'bad trip,' " he added, "and we can't forecast who'll have a difficult time and who won't."

Still, many experts hailed the research, which was funded by the U.S. National Institute of Drug Abuse and the Council on Spiritual Practices, as long overdue.

No less than Dr. Herbert Kleber -- former deputy director of the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy under former President George H.W. Bush -- said these types of studies "could shed light on various kinds of brain activity and lead to therapeutic uses for these categories of drugs." He authored a commentary on the Hopkins study.

"Over time, with appropriate research, maybe we can figure out ways to decrease [illicit drugs'] bad effects," while retaining those effects beneficial to medical science, Kleber said.

Scientific research into the effects of illegal, Schedule 1 drugs such as psilocybin are allowed by federal law. But the stigma surrounding their use has kept this type of research to a minimum. The taboo surrounding drugs such as psilocybin "has some wisdom to it," Griffiths said, but "it's unfortunate that as a culture we so demonized these drugs that we stopped doing research on them."

Psilocybin appears to work primarily on the brain's serotonin receptors to alter states of consciousness. In their study, the Baltimore team sought to determine the exact nature of psilocybin's effects on humans, under strictly controlled conditions.

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