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Sat Jul 29 21:51:11 EDT 2006
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THE STUDY: Volunteers who took psilocybin, an illegal drug made from
mushrooms, reported profound mystical experiences that altered their
attitudes and behavior for weeks.
THE CONFIRMATION: The drug has been used for centuries in religious
practices, but the new work demonstrates its effects more clearly than
THE PAYOFF: Psilocybin may prove useful in treating drug addicts or
terminally ill patients with depression. It may also enable the study of
what happens in the brain during intense spiritual experiences.
NEW YORK (AP) -- People who took an illegal drug made from mushrooms
reported profound mystical experiences that led to behavior changes
lasting for weeks -- all part of an experiment that recalls the
Many of the 36 volunteers rated their reaction to a single dose of the
drug, called psilocybin, as one of the most meaningful or spiritually
significant experiences of their lives. Some compared it to the birth of a
child or the death of a parent.
Such comments "just seemed unbelievable," said Roland Griffiths of the
Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, the
study's lead author.
But don't try this at home, he warned. "Absolutely don't."
Almost a third of the research participants found the drug experience
frightening even in the very controlled setting. That suggests people
experimenting with the illicit drug on their own could be harmed,
Viewed by some as a landmark, the study is one of the few rigorous looks
in the past 40 years at a hallucinogen's effects. The researchers suggest
the drug someday may help drug addicts kick their habit or aid terminally
ill patients struggling with anxiety and depression.
It may also provide a way to study what happens in the brain during
intense spiritual experiences, the scientists said.
Funded in part by the federal government, the research was published
online Tuesday by the journal Psychopharmacology.
Psilocybin has been used for centuries in religious practices, and its
ability to produce a mystical experience is no surprise. But the new work
demonstrates it more clearly than before, Griffiths said.
Even two months after taking the drug, pronounced SILL-oh-SY-bin, most of
the volunteers said the experience had changed them in beneficial ways,
such as making them more compassionate, loving, optimistic and patient.
Family members and friends said they noticed a difference, too.
Charles Schuster, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at
Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, and a former director of the
National Institute on Drug Abuse, called the work a landmark.
"I believe this is one of the most rigorously well-controlled studies ever
done" to evaluate psilocybin or similar substances for their potential to
increase self-awareness and a sense of spirituality, he said. He did not
participate in the research.
Psilocybin, like LSD or mescaline, is one of a class of drugs called
hallucinogens or psychedelics. While they have been studied by scientists
in the past, research was largely shut down after widespread recreational
abuse of the drugs during the 1960s, Griffiths said. Some work resumed in
"We've lost 40 years of (potential) research experience with this whole
class of compounds," he said. Now, with modern-day scientific methods, "I
think it's time to pick up this research field."
The study volunteers had an average age of 46, had never used
hallucinogens, and participated to some degree in religious or spiritual
activities such as prayer, meditation, discussion groups or religious
services. Each tried psilocybin during one visit to the lab and the
stimulant methylphenidate (better known as Ritalin) on one or two other
visits. Only six of the volunteers knew when they were getting psilocybin.
Each visit lasted eight hours. The volunteers lay on a couch in a
living-room-like setting, wearing an eye mask and listening to classical
music. They were encouraged to focus their attention inward.
Psilocybin's effects lasted for up to six hours, Griffiths said.
Twenty-two of the 36 volunteers reported having a "complete" mystical
experience, compared with four of those getting methylphenidate.
That experience included such things as a sense of pure awareness and a
merging with ultimate reality, a transcendence of time and space, a
feeling of sacredness or awe, and deeply felt positive mood like joy,
peace and love. People say "they can't possibly put it into words,"
Two months later, 24 of the participants filled out a questionnaire.
Two-thirds called their reaction to psilocybin one of the five top most
meaningful experiences of their lives. On another measure, one-third
called it the most spiritually significant experience of their lives, with
another 40 percent ranking it in the top five.
About 80 percent said that because of the psilocybin experience, they
still had a sense of well-being or life satisfaction that was raised
either "moderately" or "very much."
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