July 11, 2006

Psychedelic mushrooms work their magic on many

By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - "Magic mushrooms," used by Native
Americans and hippies to alter consciousness, appear to have
similar mystical effects on many people, U.S. researchers
reported on Tuesday.

More than 60 percent of volunteers given capsules of
psilocybin derived from mushrooms said they had a "full
mystical experience."

"Many of the volunteers in our study reported, in one way
or another, a direct, personal experience of the "beyond," said
Roland Griffiths, a professor of Neuroscience and Psychiatry
and Behavioral Biology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore
who led the study.

A third said the experience was the single most spiritually
significant of their lifetimes. Many likened it to the birth of
their first child or the death of a parent.

And the effects lingered.

Two months after getting the drug, 79 percent of the
volunteers said they felt a moderately or greatly increased
well-being or life satisfaction, according to the report
published in the journal Psychopharmacology.

"Discovering how these mystical and altered consciousness
states arise in the brain could have major therapeutic
possibilities," said Griffiths.

These include "treatment of intolerable pain, treatment of
refractory depression, amelioration of the pain and suffering
of the terminally ill," he added.

Griffiths and colleagues tested 36 healthy, educated
volunteers who all reported they had active spiritual lives.

"We thought a familiarity with spiritual practice would
give them a framework for interpreting their experiences and
that they'd be less likely to be confused or troubled by them,"
Griffiths said in a statement.

Griffiths said he did not want to be accused of working
like Timothy Leary, the former Harvard University psychologist
best known for his 1960s experiments with LSD, another
mind-altering drug.


"We are conducting rigorous, systematic research with
psilocybin under carefully monitored conditions, a route which
Dr. Leary abandoned in the early 1960s," Griffiths said.

"Even in this study, where we greatly controlled conditions
to minimize adverse effects, about a third of subjects reported
significant fear, with some also reporting transient feelings
of paranoia," he added.

"Under unmonitored conditions, it's not hard to imagine
those emotions escalating to panic and dangerous behavior."

Psilocybin acts like a message-carrying chemical called
serotonin on brain cells. Serotonin is linked with mood.

"Unlike drugs of abuse such as alcohol and cocaine, the
classic hallucinogens are not known to be physically toxic and
they are virtually non-addictive, so those are not concerns,"
Griffiths said.

To ensure that people did not imagine their experiences,
each volunteer got either psilocybin or methylphenidate, a
stimulant best known for treating attention deficit
hyperactivity disorder.

Then the drugs were swapped, so that every volunteer got
both drugs, but neither the subjects nor the staff working with
them knew who got which drug or when.

Afterwards, 22 of the 36 volunteers said they had a
"complete" mystical experience with psilocybin, compared to
four after they got methylphenidate.

Former National Institute on Drug Abuse director Dr.
Charles Schuster praised the study and said such drugs may some
day be used to treat addictions.

Dr. Solomon Snyder, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins who
says he has experimented with LSD himself, said the experiment
might lead to a way to find the "locus of religion" and the
biological basis of consciousness in the brain.

But Griffiths said such study would be purely scientific.

"We're not entering into 'Does God exist or not exist.'
This work can't and won't go there," he said.