Psychedelic Mushrooms Have Spiritual Benefit


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

July 11, 2006

Mushroom Drug
Is Studied Anew
July 11, 2006

In a study that could revive interest in researching the effects of psychedelic 
drugs, scientists said a substance in certain mushrooms induced powerful, 
mind-altering experiences among a group of well-educated, middle-age men and 

Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions researchers conducted the study following 
carefully controlled, scientifically rigorous procedures. They said that the 
episodes generally led to positive changes in attitude and behavior among the 36
volunteer participants and that the changes appeared to last at least two 
months. Participants cited feelings of intense joy, "distance from ordinary 
reality," and feelings of peace and harmony after taking the drug. Two-thirds 
described the effects of the drug, called psilocybin, as among the five most 
meaningful experiences of their lives.

But in 30% of the cases, the drug provoked harrowing experiences dominated by 
fear and paranoia. Two participants likened the episodes to being in a war. 
While these episodes were managed by trained monitors at the sessions where the 
drugs were taken, researchers cautioned that in less-controlled settings, such 
responses could trigger panic or other reactions that might put people in 

A report on the study, among the first to systematically assess the effects of 
hallucinogenic substances in 40 years, is being published online today by the 
journal Psychopharmacology. An accompanying editorial and commentaries from 
three prominent neuroscientists and a psychiatrist praise the study and argue 
that further research into such agents has the potential to unlock secrets of 
consciousness and lead to new therapeutic strategies for depression, addiction 
and other ailments.

In one of the commentaries, Charles R. Schuster, a neuroscientist and former 
head of the National Institute for Drug Abuse, called the report a "landmark 
paper." He also expressed hope that it "renews interest in a fascinating and 
potentially useful class of psychotropic agents."

Still, the research is likely to stir controversy. Though psilocybin mushrooms, 
which can be found growing wild throughout the world, have been used for 
centuries in some societies during spiritual rituals, they also were agents, 
along with such hallucinogens as LSD and mescaline, that fueled the "Turn On, 
Tune In, Drop Out" counterculture of the 1960s personified by Timothy Leary.

Researchers acknowledge that the study's positive findings may encourage 
inappropriate use of the agents. Roland Griffiths, the Hopkins neuroscientist 
who headed the research, warned against viewing the results as a green light for
consuming the mushrooms. "We don't know all their dark sides," he said. "I 
wouldn't in any way want to underestimate the potential risks" of indiscriminate
use of the drugs.

The National Institute for Drug Abuse, which co-sponsored the study as part of 
its support for research into drugs of abuse, also warned against eating 
psilocybin mushrooms. They "act on serotonin receptors in the brain to 
profoundly distort a person's perception of reality," the institute said, 
possibly triggering psychosis, paranoia and anxiety.

It was widespread abuse in the 1960s that led to hallucinogens becoming illegal,
effectively shutting down then-burgeoning corporate and academic research 
programs that had suggested the agents might be valuable research and 
therapeutic tools. One of the last influential studies was the Good Friday 
Experiment in 1962 in which 20 seminary students were given either psilocybin or
nicotinic acid during a religious service. The 10 who got psilocybin reported 
intense spiritual experiences with positive benefits; one follow-up study 
suggested those effects lasted 25 years.

"It's remarkable that we have a class of compounds that has sat in the deep 
freeze for 40 years," Dr. Griffiths said. "It seemed to me scientifically it was
high time to look again" at psychedelic agents.

Known colloquially by such names as magic mushroom or sacred mushroom, 
psilocybin is considered a Schedule I substance under the U.S. Controlled 
Substances Act. That puts it in the same class as heroin and LSD, drugs that 
have a high potential for abuse and no known medical use. It isn't considered 
addictive. The psilocybin used in the study was synthesized by David E. Nichols,
a professor of medicinal chemistry at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind., 
under a special permit.

After getting approval from the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Food and 
Drug Administration and an institutional review board at Hopkins, Dr. Griffiths 
and his colleagues circulated a flier seeking volunteers for a "study of states 
of consciousness brought about by a naturally occurring psychoactive substance 
used sacramentally in some cultures."

From among the 135 people who responded, 36 were eventually selected, based in 
part on their lack of a history of psychedelic drug use or family history of 
serious psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia. The 36 -- 14 men and 22 
women -- ranged in age from 24 to 64 years old, with an average age of 46; 97% 
were college graduates, and 56% had post-graduate degrees. All 36 participated 
at least occasionally in religious or spiritual activities. (Dr. Griffiths 
declined to make any participants available for interviews, citing privacy 

Thirty of the participants were randomly assigned to receive either psilocybin 
or Ritalin (known generically as methylphenidate) as a control for the first 
eight-hour session; two months later, they were given the other drug in another 
session. Neither the participants nor the monitors who were present during their
sessions knew which agent was being taken. To further reduce chances that 
participant responses would be affected by expectations they were getting 
psilocybin, a third group of six participants was randomly assigned to receive 
Ritalin in both sessions, followed by a third session when they knew they were 
getting the psychedelic agent. Ritalin was selected as the control agent in part
because it can cause mood-changing effects similar to those of psilocybin, 
researchers said. It also takes effect at about the same time and lasts for 
about as long.

Participants were given the drug in individual sessions in a living-room 
environment with two experienced monitors. They were blindfolded, given 
headphones to listen to classical music and encouraged to lie down and direct 
their thoughts inward.

Researchers provided participants with a battery of questionnaires and mysticism
scales, some of which were developed based on research from more than four 
decades ago, to measure their impressions of their experience at the end of the 
session and again two months later.

A third of the participants said the experience with psilocybin was the single 
most significant experience of their lives, and an additional 38% rated it among
their top five such experiences -- akin to, say, the birth of a first child or 
the death of a parent. Just 8% of the Ritalin episodes were reported to be among
the top five meaningful occurrences. Two months after the sessions, 79% of the 
participants indicated in questionnaires that their sense of well-being and 
satisfaction increased after the psilocybin episodes, compared with 21% for 

Researchers hope the findings will spur other studies that will, for instance, 
compare the effects of other hallucinogens and use MRIs to observe how such 
drugs affect the human brain. Other efforts are expected to test the value of 
psilocybin as a therapy. Charles Grob, a researcher at UCLA, is heading a small 
study to see if the drug relieves anxiety, depression and pain among patients 
with advanced cancer.

Dr. Griffiths said another goal is to understand the consequences of spiritual 
experiences -- both drug-induced and spontaneous -- and to determine how long 
they last and whether they lead to personality changes.

Write to Ron Winslow at •••@••.•••1

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