Far out: Magic mushrooms could have medical benefits, researchers say
By Zachary Roth
The hallucinogen in magic mushrooms may no longer
just be for hippies seeking a trippy high.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University School
of Medicine have been studying the effects of
psilocybin, a chemical found in some psychedelic
mushrooms, that's credited with inducing
transcendental states. Now, they say, they've
zeroed in on the perfect dosage level to
produce transformative mystical and spiritual
experiences that offer long-lasting life-changing
benefits, while carrying little risk of negative reactions.
The breakthrough could speed the day when doctors
use psilocybin--long viewed skeptically for
its association with 1960s countercultural
thrill-seekers--for a range of valuable clinical
functions, like easing the anxiety of terminally
ill patients, treating depression and post-traumatic
stress disorder, and helping smokers quit. Already,
studies in which depressed cancer patients were
given the drug have reported positive results.
"I'm not afraid to die anymore" one participant told The Lookout.
The Johns Hopkins study--whose results will be published
this week in the journal Psychopharmacology--involved
giving healthy volunteers varying doses of psilocybin
in a controlled and supportive setting, over four
separate sessions. Looking back more than a year
later, 94 percent of participants rated it as one
of the top five most spiritually significant experiences
of their lifetimes.
More important, 89 percent reported lasting,
positive changes in their behavior--better
relationships with others, for instance, or
increased care for their own mental and physical
well-being. Those assessments were corroborated
by family members and others.
"I think my heart is more open to all interactions
with other people," one volunteer reported in a
questionnaire given to participants 14-months
after their session.
"I feel that I relate better in my marriage,"
wrote another. "There is more empathy -- a greater
understanding of people, and understanding their
difficulties, and less judgment."
Identifying the exact right dosage for hallucinogenic
drugs is crucial, Roland Griffiths, a professor
of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins who led the study,
explained to The Lookout. That's because a
"bad trip" can trigger hazardous, self-destructive
behavior, but low doses don't produce the kind
of transformative experiences that can offer
long-term benefits. By trying a range of doses,
Griffiths said, researchers were able to find
the sweet spot, "where a high or intermediate
dose can produce, fairly reliably, these mystical
experiences, with very low probability of
a significant fear reaction."
In the 1950s and '60s, scientists became interested
in the potential effects of hallucinogens like
psilocybin, mescaline, and lysergic acid diethylamide
(LSD) on both healthy and terminally ill people.
Mexican Indians had, since ancient times, used
psychedelic mushrooms with similar chemical
structures to achieve intense spiritual experiences.
But by the mid '60s, counterculture gurus like
Dr. Timothy Leary and Aldous Huxley were talking
up mind-altering drugs as a way of expanding one's
consciousness and rejecting mainstream society.
Stories, perhaps apocryphal, circulated about
people jumping out of windows while on LSD, and
some heavy users were said to have suffered
permanent psychological damage. By the early
'70s, the US government had essentially banned
all hallucinogenic drugs.
But recent years have seen the beginning of
a revival of mainstream scientific interest
in mind-altering drugs, and particularly in
the possibility of using them in a clinical
setting to alleviate depression and anxiety.
A 2004 study by the government of Holland
(pdf) found psilocybin to have no significant
Here in the United States, too, the climate may
be shifting. In a statement accompanying the
announcement of the Johns Hopkins findings,
Jerome Jaffe, a former White House drug czar
now at the University of Maryland School of
Medicine, said the results raise the question
of whether psilocybin could prove useful
"in dealing with the psychological distress
experienced by some terminal patients?"
The hope is that the long-lasting spiritual
and transcendental experiences associated with
psilocybin could--if conducted in a controlled
and supportive setting, and with appropriate
dosage levels--help ease patients' fear and
anxiety, allowing them to approach death with
a greater sense of calm. (You can see one
terminally ill cancer patient speak movingly
about the positive effects of psilocybin here.)
Griffiths thinks the drug may have the potential
to alleviate the suffering of terminal patients.
He's currently leading a separate Johns Hopkins
psilocybin study, using volunteers who are
depressed after being diagnosed with cancer.
"So far we've had--anecdotally only--very
positive results," comparable to the study
with healthy volunteers, he said. A study from
the University of California, Los Angeles last
year reported similar positive results.
But Griffiths said his study, under way for
three years, has only recruited 20 patients,
in part because oncologists are more interested
in curing cancer than helping patients cope
with its effects, so they don't refer provide
many referrals. "Most oncologists just don't
get it," he said. "It's not the focus of their
research, and they're busy people."
But the experience of one volunteer in Griffiths's
study offers a glimpse of the potential benefits.
Lauri Reamer, 47, told The Lookout that she
participated in two Johns Hopkins psilocybin
sessions last September, not long after ending
intensive chemotherapy and radiation to treat a
rare form of leukemia that, several times in the
preceding few years, had almost taken her life.
Reamer, an anesthesiologist from Ruxton, Md.,
with three young daughters, said that although
her disease was in remission by that time, she
was still suffering psychologically from the
trauma of the illness and the treatment. She
had walled herself off emotionally, she said,
and was unable to show empathy for others or
even for herself.
The psilocybin had an immediate impact.
"At the end of the session, I was just in
this joyous, happy, relaxed state," she said.
"The drug was gone--what was left was just
this peaceful calm."
That calm had lasting benefits. Reamer said
the experience--what she called "an epiphany"
--gave her the impetus to get out of a failing
marriage. Since doing so, she said, both she
and her daughters have been much happier.
"I don't think it was the drug that did it,"
she said. "It was the drug that helped me
find the clarity."
That's not the only improvement. "My sleeping
has gotten better. My relationships have gotten
better with people," she said. "The fog has lifted."
"The best thing it did for me was heal me
psychologically and emotionally and allow me
to be back in my kids' lives, be back to being
a mother," Reamer concluded.Â As she spoke,
she was taking her daughters--two 15-year old
twins, and a 6-year-old--on a trip to Hershey Park.
And although doctors tell her that, thanks to
the effect of the illness and the treatment, she
likely has only 10 or 15 years to live, she's
able to approach that challenge with equanimity.
"My fear of death kind of disappeared," she said.
"I'm not afraid to die anymore."
Griffiths, of Johns Hopkins, said Reamer's
experience isn't an outlier among the volunteers,
both sick and healthy, who have tried psilocybin.
"People feel uplifted, and very often have a
sense that everything is O.K. at one level,"
he said. "That there's sense to be made out
of the chaos."
"When you see people undergoing that kind of t
ransformation," he added, "it's really quite moving."
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