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Far out: Magic mushrooms could have medical benefits

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    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
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 16, 2011
      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
      negative effects.

      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. 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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