Radical media, politics and culture.

Ron Winslow, "Go Ask Alice"

Go Ask Alice:

Mushroom Drug Is Studied Anew

Ron Winslow

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 women. [Psilocybe Cubensis]

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 danger.

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

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

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

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 issues.)

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 Ritalin.

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

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