July 11, 2006

“Magic” mushrooms mystical for many: study

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.

At least one team of doctors is already testing whether
using them can help terminal cancer patients come to terms with
their fates.

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.

Griffiths said the drug might be used to treat addiction as
well as severe pain or depression.

Griffiths and colleagues tested 36 healthy, educated
volunteers who all reported they had active spiritual lives,
the idea being that spiritual people would be less troubled by
the drug's effects.

He said he did not want to be accused of working like
Timothy Leary, a former Harvard University psychologist known
for 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, which is nontoxic and not addictive, acts like
a message-carrying chemical called serotonin on brain cells.
Serotonin is linked with mood.

It is produced by several species of mushrooms native to
the Americas. Under U.S. law it is a Schedule I hallucinogenic
substance, on a par with drugs such as heroin.

But its use in medical experiments is approved by the U.S.
Food and Drug Administration, and one team led by Dr. Charles
Grob at the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance, California
is testing the drug on patients with end-stage cancer.

Grob said in a telephone interview his team has tested the
drug on seven terminal cancer patients to see if it could work
to reduce pain, calm them down and provide them some sense of

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.