"Magic mushrooms" are known to bring on an intense psychedelic trip, and psilocybin, the mind-altering chemical in the mushroom, is believed to help treat certain medical conditions. But new research suggests the drug may actually alter people's personalities for a long period of time.
Researchers from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine gave one high dose of psilocybin to 51 adult study participants and found that 30 of them underwent measurable personality changes that lasted more than a year.
The aspect of personality that changed is known as openness. Openness, the authors wrote, "encompasses aesthetic appreciation and sensitivity, imagination and fantasy, and broad-minded tolerance of others' viewpoints and values."
The 30 subjects whose personalities changed became more open after the psilocybin session.
Lead author Katherine MacLean, a post-doctoral fellow, said participants completed a personality questionnaire before the study began, about a month after the study and then again 14 months later.
The people who became more open also had a "complete mystical experience," while the others whose personalities did not change didn't have a similar experience.
"The mystical experience has certain qualities," MacLean said. "The primary one is that you feel a certain kind of connectedness and unity with everything and everyone."
People also feel very joyful, MacLean said.
The study authors and other researchers who study the effects of psilocybin say the findings are very significant and have potentially huge implications for the use of the drug for other therapeutic purposes.
"Personality is assumed to be stable by the age of 30," said MacLean. "There may be small changes over time, but openness tends to go down with age. Older people tend to become less interested in exploring and trying new things."
Research into possible medical applications of psilocybin began at Harvard University in the early 1960s. The government put a moratorium on the studies a few years later, and research didn't resume again until this past decade.
A team of scientists led by Johns Hopkins' Roland Griffiths, MacLean's advisor, has pioneered a number of experiments.
"The Hopkins team first showed back in 2006 a high correlation between people who had mystical experiences brought on by psilocybin and improved mood," said Dr. Stephen Ross, clinical director of the NYU Langone Center for Excellence on Addiction. "Our research has found that cancer patients suffering from anxiety related to death who took psilocybin had reduced anxiety and depression."
A 2010 study at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center found the drug had similar effects in late-stage cancer patients.
"People often experience a psychospiritual epiphany that allows them to step back from who they've perceived themselves to be and view things from a different perspective," said Dr. Charles Grob, a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center and an author of the UCLA cancer study.
Other institutions are currently testing the effects of psilocybin on different types of addiction and on other medical conditions.
The effects of psilocybin on the brain could also help treat mental illness and lead to personal growth.
"The fact people can be this open after just a couple of sessions has implications for psychotherapy to try and speed it up and to treat all sorts of mental disorders," said Ross.
"The domain of openness generally has benefits related to overall intelligence, the ability to think abstractly and creatively and to have an active imagination," said MacLean.
But MacLean added that the subjects in her study were very open to begin with, spiritually active and most held post-graduate degrees, so it was difficult to say whether the same effects would be seen in the general population.
She also cautioned that psilocybin was administered under very carefully monitored circumstances. Psilocybin in previous studies, she added, caused anxiety and fear in some people who participated.
"The problem with these hallucinogenic drugs historically is that they escaped from laboratories and people started using them without paying attention to their special qualities," said Ross. "That can be very problematic and dangerous."
"The implications are strictly for this kind of controlled setting," said Grob. "They do not transfer over to the regular world."
Psilocybin is an illegal drug. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency considers it a Schedule 1 drug, meaning the potential for abuse is high, it has no medically accepted use and isn't considered safe to use under medical supervision.
Its use in laboratories is strictly regulated, and psilocybin can only be manufactured in facilities certified by the DEA.
Ross said under the right conditions, psilocybin is safe with no known toxic effects.
But Dr. Daniel Angres, associate professor of psychiatry at Rush University Medical Center, argued the use of psilocybin is too risky.
"There are safer ways to create profound transcendent experiences, like the use of meditative states, that can facilitate therapeutic openness and change," he said.
He also doesn't believe drug-induced personality changes can be sustained in the long run.
"Character can and will deteriorate with the use of substances that have abuse potential over the long run," he said, "even though initially there may sometimes seem to be 'positive personality adaptations.'"