Wednesday, 29 August 2007

The Mind, the Mushroom, and the Research

About one year ago, an intriguing - and very rare - study was published by researchers at John Hopkins University's Medicine department. It was the world's very first scientifically controlled, double-blind investigation into the effects of psilocybin - the psychoactive ingredient in what are colloquially known as magic mushrooms. Psilocybin had been studied before, but never in such a systematically controlled way, and virtually not at all in recent decades.

The lead researcher Dr. Roland Griffiths, professor of behavioral biology and professor of neuroscience at John Hopkins is no light-weight. His CV is here, and you will note that this study is his 239th journal publication. The goal of this particular study was to investigate the potential of psilocybin as a therapeutic agent, and to better understand the functioning of consciousness, sensory perception, and what may be termed mystical experiences. The participants were 36 well-educated adults with no personal or family history of drug use or mental illness.

What did the researchers find?

In the study, more than 60 percent of subjects described the effects of psilocybin in ways that met criteria for a “full mystical experience” as measured by established psychological scales. One third said the experience was the single most spiritually significant of their lifetimes; and more than two-thirds rated it among their five most meaningful and spiritually significant. Griffiths says subjects liken it to the importance of the birth of their first child or the death of a parent.

Two months later, 79 percent of subjects reported moderately or greatly increased well-being or life satisfaction compared with those given a placebo at the same test session. A majority said their mood, attitudes and behaviors had changed for the better. Structured interviews with family members, friends and co-workers generally confirmed the subjects’ remarks.

In the next few months and years, expect a flurry of follow-up publications. The original research team is currently publishing a 1 year review of the research participants (no word yet on the exact release date). The Griffiths team is also conducting a trial of patients suffering from advanced cancer-related depression or anxiety, as well as designing studies to test a role for psilocybin in treating drug dependence. Researchers at the University of Arizona, UCLA, and Harvard (to name a few) have begun to study psilocybin as a result of this study.

This development is groundbreaking for a number of reasons:
  • No real scientific research has been conducted on hallucinogens in the last 40 years. We don't really understand how they work, or what effects they have on their users. Hopefully that will change.
  • This opens up an entire new range of methods for investigating the fundamentals of how the human mind works. Philosophical questions of the nature of consciousness, mysticism, and self-concept may be addressed from an entirely new scientific approach.
  • New treatments for depression, bipolar disorder, drug dependence and other mental illnesses may be available. Anecdotal evidence is very promising in this area, but empirical research is the only conclusive way to test and develop new treatments.
  • Government drug policy may finally be adjusted to reflect realistic potentials for abuse. Psilocybin has been condemned by many governments; in the US, it is ranked as a Schedule I drug, along with cocaine and heroin, and possession carries similarly severe penalties of lengthy prison sentences and substantial fines. However, psilocybin is non-toxic (ie, physical overdose is not possible), it is not physically addictive, and there is not a single recorded death caused directly by psilocybin. By contrast, in 1993, tobacco killed 434,000 Americans (20% of all premature US deaths) and alcohol killed 125,000 (Mathias, 1994.)

What an exciting time to be a psychologist!

As the relevant publications are released in the coming months, I will provide summaries of the findings here on Exeterra.

The full research report is available here:

Griffiths, R. R., Richards, W. A., McCann, U. & Jesse, R. (2006). Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial systained personal meaning and spiritual significance. Psychopharmacology, 187, 268-283.

This is a good, accessible press release written without jargon.

And here is commentary by other distinguished researchers in related fields, originally printed in the same edition of Psychopharmacology.

Q & A with the lead researcher, Professor Griffiths.


C. Joshua Villines said...

I've yet to see any references to Alice in Wonderland or Jefferson I'm questioning the validity of the research.

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