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Hallucinogens Have Doctors Tuning In Again

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  • medit8ionsociety
    April 11, 2010 Hallucinogens Have Doctors Tuning In Again By JOHN TIERNEY As a retired clinical psychologist, Clark Martin was well acquainted with traditional
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 12, 2010
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      April 11, 2010
      Hallucinogens Have Doctors Tuning In Again
      As a retired clinical psychologist, Clark Martin was
      well acquainted with traditional treatments for
      depression, but his own case seemed untreatable as
      he struggled through chemotherapy and other grueling
      regimens for kidney cancer. Counseling seemed futile
      to him. So did the antidepressant pills he tried.

      Nothing had any lasting effect until, at the age of 65,
      he had his first psychedelic experience. He left his
      home in Vancouver, Wash., to take part in an experiment
      at Johns Hopkins medical school involving psilocybin,
      the psychoactive ingredient found in certain mushrooms.

      Scientists are taking a new look at hallucinogens, which
      became taboo among regulators after enthusiasts like
      Timothy Leary promoted them in the 1960s with the slogan
      "Turn on, tune in, drop out." Now, using rigorous
      protocols and safeguards, scientists have won permission
      to study once again the drugs' potential for treating
      mental problems and illuminating the nature of consciousness.

      After taking the hallucinogen, Dr. Martin put on an
      eye mask and headphones, and lay on a couch listening
      to classical music as he contemplated the universe.

      "All of a sudden, everything familiar started evaporating,"
      he recalled. "Imagine you fall off a boat out in the
      open ocean, and you turn around, and the boat is gone.
      And then the water's gone. And then you're gone."

      Today, more than a year later, Dr. Martin credits that
      six-hour experience with helping him overcome his
      depression and profoundly transforming his relationships
      with his daughter and friends. He ranks it among the
      most meaningful events of his life, which makes him a
      fairly typical member of a growing club of experimental

      Researchers from around the world are gathering this
      week in San Jose, Calif., for the largest conference on
      psychedelic science held in the United States in four
      decades. They plan to discuss studies of psilocybin and
      other psychedelics for treating depression in cancer
      patients, obsessive-compulsive disorder, end-of-life
      anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction
      to drugs or alcohol.

      The results so far are encouraging but also preliminary,
      and researchers caution against reading too much into
      these small-scale studies. They do not want to repeat
      the mistakes of the 1960s, when some
      scientists-turned-evangelists exaggerated their
      understanding of the drugs' risks and benefits.

      Because reactions to hallucinogens can vary so much
      depending on the setting, experimenters and review
      boards have developed guidelines to set up a
      comfortable environment with expert monitors in
      the room to deal with adverse reactions. They have
      established standard protocols so that the drugs'
      effects can be gauged more accurately, and they
      have also directly observed the drugs' effects by
      scanning the brains of people under the influence
      of hallucinogens.

      Scientists are especially intrigued by the similarities
      between hallucinogenic experiences and the life-changing
      revelations reported throughout history by religious
      mystics and those who meditate. These similarities
      have been identified in neural imaging studies conducted
      by Swiss researchers and in experiments led by Roland
      Griffiths, a professor of behavioral biology at Johns Hopkins.

      In one of Dr. Griffiths's first studies, involving
      36 people with no serious physical or emotional problems,
      he and colleagues found that psilocybin could induce
      what the experimental subjects described as a profound
      spiritual experience with lasting positive effects for
      most of them. None had had any previous experience with hallucinogens, and none were even sure what drug was
      being administered.

      To make the experiment double-blind, neither the subjects
      nor the two experts monitoring them knew whether the
      subjects were receiving a placebo, psilocybin or another
      drug like Ritalin, nicotine, caffeine or an amphetamine.
      Although veterans of the '60s psychedelic culture may
      have a hard time believing it, Dr. Griffiths said that
      even the monitors sometimes could not tell from the
      reactions whether the person had taken psilocybin or Ritalin.

      The monitors sometimes had to console people through
      periods of anxiety, Dr. Griffiths said, but these were
      generally short-lived, and none of the people reported
      any serious negative effects. In a survey conducted two
      months later, the people who received psilocybin reported significantly more improvements in their general feelings and behavior than did the members of the control group.

      The findings were repeated in another follow-up survey,
      taken 14 months after the experiment. At that point most
      of the psilocybin subjects once again expressed more
      satisfaction with their lives and rated the experience as
      one of the five most meaningful events of their lives.

      Since that study, which was published in 2008, Dr. Griffiths
      and his colleagues have gone on to give psilocybin to
      people dealing with cancer and depression, like Dr. Martin,
      the retired psychologist from Vancouver. Dr. Martin's
      experience is fairly typical, Dr. Griffiths said: an improved
      outlook on life after an experience in which the boundaries
      between the self and others disappear.

      In interviews, Dr. Martin and other subjects described their egos and bodies vanishing as they felt part of some larger state of consciousness in which their personal worries and insecurities vanished. They found themselves reviewing past relationships with lovers and relatives with a new sense of empathy.

      "It was a whole personality shift for me," Dr. Martin
      said. "I wasn't any longer attached to my performance and
      trying to control things. I could see that the really good
      things in life will happen if you just show up and share
      your natural enthusiasms with people. You have a feeling of attunement with other people."

      The subjects' reports mirrored so closely the accounts
      of religious mystical experiences, Dr. Griffiths said,
      that it seems likely the human brain is wired to undergo these "unitive" experiences, perhaps because of some
      evolutionary advantage.

      "This feeling that we're all in it together may have
      benefited communities by encouraging reciprocal
      generosity," Dr. Griffiths said. "On the other hand,
      universal love isn't always adaptive, either."

      Although federal regulators have resumed granting
      approval for controlled experiments with psychedelics,
      there has been little public money granted for the
      research, which is being conducted at Hopkins, the
      University of Arizona; Harvard; New York University;
      the University of California, Los Angeles; and other places.

      The work has been supported by nonprofit groups like
      the Heffter Research Institute and MAPS, the
      Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies.

      "There's this coming together of science and spirituality,"
      said Rick Doblin, the executive director of MAPS. "We're
      hoping that the mainstream and the psychedelic community
      can meet in the middle and avoid another culture war.
      Thanks to changes over the last 40 years in the social
      acceptance of the hospice movement and yoga and meditation,
      our culture is much more receptive now, and we're showing
      that these drugs can provide benefits that current
      treatments can't."

      Researchers are reporting preliminary success in using
      psilocybin to ease the anxiety of patients with terminal
      illnesses. Dr. Charles S. Grob, a psychiatrist who is
      involved in an experiment at U.C.L.A., describes it as
      "existential medicine" that helps dying people overcome
      fear, panic and depression.

      "Under the influences of hallucinogens," Dr. Grob writes, "individuals transcend their primary identification
      with their bodies and experience ego-free states before
      the time of their actual physical demise, and return with
      a new perspective and profound acceptance of the life constant: change."

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