Psychedelic mushrooms earn serious 2d look from science - The Boston Globe
Psychedelic mushrooms earn serious 2d look from science
By Gareth Cook, Globe Staff | July 17, 2006
Psychedelic mushrooms have been a stubborn part of the nation's drug problem for decades, offering their users a potentially dangerous, and decidedly illegal, way to warp their consciousness. Now government-funded scientists have found that the active ingredient in the mushrooms could be a powerful tool for scientific research, and they say it should be explored as a potential treatment for depression, anxiety, and other disorders.
In a paper published last week, scientists at Johns Hopkins University say that a single dose of psilocybin routinely brings about positive psychological changes that can last for months. This lasting effect is surprising and mysterious, the scientists said, but seems to be the result of what they call powerful drug-induced ``mystical experiences" that include a feeling of the sacredness and oneness of the universe. More than two-thirds of the volunteers described their session with the drug -- several hours in a laboratory, under close monitoring -- as one of the most meaningful and spiritually significant events in their life, on a par with the birth of a child or the death of a parent.
``That just blew me away," said Roland Griffiths , a Johns Hopkins scientist who led the study and is considered one of the world's top investigators into the psychological effects of drugs.
Griffiths and other scientists said that the results suggest the time has come to study the scientific and medical potential of psilocybin, some four decades after the drug abuse of the 1960s shut down research into psychedelic drugs.
Neuroscientists could study people under the influence of the drug to answer basic questions about human perception and consciousness. But the research also shows that scientists can safely and reliably provoke a mystical experience in a laboratory, meaning they now have an unprecedented chance to study the nature of the mystical experience itself, using brain scanning and other techniques to probe the biological basis of a puzzling human phenomenon that has powerfully shaped the world's religions.
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``This represents a landmark study, because it is applying modern techniques to an area of human experience that goes back as long as humankind has been here," said Charles R. Schuster , a former director of the government's National Institute on Drug Abuse and currently a professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at Wayne State University School of Medicine .
The Hopkins team is planning follow-up work to look at the drug's medical potential, but other groups have already begun similar research. Preliminary results from a study underway at a California hospital show that a single session with psilocybin helps patients overcome the anxiety and depression that come with a diagnosis of incurable cancer. A scientist at McLean Hospital in Belmont is studying the use of ecstasy, another illegal psychedelic, for the same purpose. A researcher at the University of Arizona, meanwhile, is testing whether psilocybin can treat obsessive-compulsive disorder.
The scientists caution that the research is preliminary, though, and they worry that their results might inspire someone to abuse the drug. Even in the Hopkins experiment, about one-third of the participants experienced fear -- sometimes intense -- and paranoia while on the drug, and these emotions could easily escalate to panic and destructive behavior outside a controlled setting, Griffiths said. The participants were given hours of training before participating, and they were screened for mental illness. The drug is also thought to have the potential to bring on some mental illnesses in people prone to them.
``People shouldn't be using this drug," said David Shurtleff , director of the Division of Basic Neuroscience and Behavioral Research at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which helped fund the work. The research was also funded by the Council on Spiritual Practices , a San Francisco organization.
Griffiths said that work for the study, published in the journal Psychopharmacology , began in 1999. The team had to clear numerous regulatory barriers, including approval from the Food and Drug Administration, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and a board at Hopkins that must approve all research using human subjects.
The volunteers were tested one at a time. They were each teamed with trained monitors who sat with them throughout the session. The testing was set up so that neither they nor the monitor knew whether they would receive psilocybin or a stimulant that is not a hallucinogen but causes some of the same physical effects.
After being given the drug, the volunteers sat in a comfortable room for about eight hours, most of it spent with an eye mask on, listening to music. If they became frightened, a monitor would reassure them, Griffiths said.
The volunteers filled out extensive questionnaires after the test and again two months later.
Twenty-two of 36 participants described the psilocybin experience in terms that meet the criteria of a ``full mystical experience," according to a standard psychological scale. This includes a sense of the unity and interconnectedness of the universe, a feeling of being in the presence of overwhelming love or grace, a sense that space and time have collapsed, and an inability to describe the experience in words. Afterward, many participants also said they still felt that their drug-induced perceptions were ``more real" than ordinary reality, another refrain of mystics throughout the ages.
Two months later, 19 of 24 volunteers said that they were more satisfied with their life, and interviews with friends, coworkers and relatives supported the idea that the participants had changed for the better. (Not all volunteers filled out the long-term follow-up questionnaire.) Griffiths said he also hopes to test the drug as a treatment for anxiety and fear in patients diagnosed with terminal cancer.
In the California study, Dr. Charles Grob , a professor of psychiatry at the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, recalled one session with a woman whose fear of dying had so overwhelmed her that it was cutting her off from the people who loved her.
He said he watched as she cried and cried while under the influence of the drug. Grob said he thought that she was anguished by her mortality. Later, he asked her why she had been crying. She said that she was crying in empathy with her husband -- that she felt the loneliness he felt at losing his connection to her.
It was a revelation, she said, that has strengthened her marriage.
Gareth Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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