Hallucinogens Have Doctors Tuning In Again
- April 11, 2010
Hallucinogens Have Doctors Tuning In Again
By JOHN TIERNEY
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
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
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
"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
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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