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Can Hallucinogen Mushrooms Be Used Medicinally?

June 16, 2011

The hallucinogen found in “magic mushrooms” could be used to treat a variety of psychiatric disorders, including depression, anxiety and addiction, according to researchers working on a new study.

The scientists, working at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine have figured out the dose levels of the “sacred mushroom” chemical capable of yielding positive experiences, while minimizing the chance of negative reactions like those found in volunteers of the study, who were under constant, supportive, carefully monitored conditions.

The findings of the study, published online in the journal Psychopharmacology, provide clues on how much of the substance people can take to get the greatest benefit with the least amount of risk. However, use of the substance, called psilocybin, can have moderately severe side effects, including paranoia and delusions.

Volunteers in the study were given preparatory guidance and five sessions each a month apart, four with different doses of psilocybin and one with a placebo.

Most of the experiment’s 18 volunteers — 94 percent — rated a psilocybin session as one of the top five most spiritually significant experiences in his or her life. Under higher doses, about a third of the volunteers experienced great fear or anxiety or had delusions, yet those reactions were managed with gentle reassurance that the effects would not harm the participants.

Eighty-nine percent of the participants also reported positive changes in their behaviors, and those reports were substantiated by their family members or friends, according to the researchers. The behavioral changes most frequently cited were improved relationships with family and friends, increased physical psychological self-care, and increased devotion to spiritual practice.

The team acknowledged that because the study was small, more research would be needed to determine exactly how the substance works.

And even if the drug became available for prescription, it should always be given under the supervision of properly trained personnel, the researchers cautioned.

“The model of it would never be, “Ëœtake two of these and call me in the morning,’” study researcher Matthew Johnson, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University, told MyHealthNews. “Someone having an adverse reaction might be so scared they might run across a highway and be hit by a car,” he noted. “We wouldn’t encourage anyone to do these things in a non-supervised context.”

“In cultures before ours, the spiritual guide or healer had to discern how much of what type of mushroom to use for what purposes, because the strength of psychoactive mushrooms varies from species to species and even from specimen to specimen,” explained lead researcher Roland Griffiths, PhD, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

“In our laboratory, we’re working with the pure chemical psilocybin, which we can measure out precisely. We wanted to take a methodical look at how its effects change with dosage. We seem to have found levels of the substance and particular conditions for its use that give a high probability of a profound and beneficial experience, a low enough probability of psychological struggle, and very little risk of any actual harm,” Griffiths said.

Psilocybin is mainly being considered as a treatment for terminally ill patients who experience depression and anxiety, and for those with hard-to-treat addictions, including alcoholism, noted Johnson.

Other hallucinogens, such as LSD, received research in the 1950s through the 70s, for its effects. However, it was stopped after recreational use of the drug led to cases of drug abuse, and as such, the drugs were perceived as a public health concern, Dr. Charles Grob, of Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance, California, who has conducted research on psilocybin, but was not involved in the new study, told MSNBC.

Research on LSD has resumed within the last decade.

With respect to psilocybin, researchers are unclear how the drug actually works. It seems quite different from that of most modern psychiatric medicines, which are taken regularly. Johnson said psilocybin sessions could change the way people think about themselves and the world around them, and may give their lives more meaning.

“There’s something very important about the person recognizing fundamental meaning in their life,” said Johnson.

Grob agreed the benefit seems to come from restoring a sense of purpose. When you have a terminal illness, “that thread of meaning that has carried you through your life”¦that often evaporates,” he said. “Having a profound experience seems to be able to re-infuse people with that meaning.”

Commenting on the findings, Jerome Jaffe, MD, of the University of Maryland School of Medicine, who served as the first White House “Drug Czar” and has also been a consultant to the World Health Organization on drug issues, remarked: “The Hopkins psilocybin studies clearly demonstrate that this route to the mystical is not to be walked alone. But they have also demonstrated significant and lasting benefits.”

He said the study, however, raise two questions: “Could psilocybin-occasioned experiences prove therapeutically useful, for example in dealing with the psychological distress experienced by some terminal patients?” “¦ and “¦ “Should properly-informed citizens, not in distress, be allowed to receive psilocybin for its possible spiritual benefits, as we now allow them to pursue other possibly risky activities such as cosmetic surgery and mountain-climbing?”

The findings of the current study have helped pave the way for further research into the possible therapeutic benefits of psilocybin. One ongoing study at Hopkins is exploring whether psilocybin-induced peak experiences can help alleviate anxiety and fear of death in persons with terminal cancer. Another study is testing whether psilocybin can help smokers effectively quit.

A third experiment underway at Hopkins is working with healthy volunteers engaged in spiritual exploration. The research examines the outcomes of psilocybin sessions in combination with various spiritual practices such as meditation, awareness training, and dialogue with other study participants.

In all four experiments combined, researchers at Hopkins have administered more than 200 psilocybin sessions to more than 100 volunteers. Nearly all have reported significant and lasting increases in well-being after their psilocybin sessions.

The report was authored by Roland R. Griffiths, Matthew W. Johnson, Una McCann, William A. Richards, Brian D. Richards, and Robert Jesse. The research was supported by grants from the Council on Spiritual Practices, the Heffter Research Institute, the Betsy Gordon Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health.

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