Tripping Out: Scientists Study Mystical Effects of Mushrooms

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This may come as no surprise to the flower children of the 1960s, but in one of the few controlled human studies of a known illegal hallucinogen, the active ingredient in "sacred mushrooms" created what researchers are describing as deep mystical experiences that left many of the study participants with a long lasting sense of well-being.

The controversial study, conducted by Johns Hopkins University of Medicine, looked at whether a pill containing psilocybin, derived from the psilocybe mushroom, would induce mystical experiences among 36 healthy adult study participants. All had religious backgrounds, and all were also given the active drug ingredient in the attention-deficit disorder drug, Ritalin, at a separate time as a comparison.

The results were clear: Sixty percent of the psilocybin group elicited behaviors consistent with a "full mystical experience" as measured by psychological scales. Two months later, about 79 percent of the group reported "moderately to greatly increased" well-being or life satisfaction.

During the experiment, the participants were informed they could be receiving a hallucinogen, and they were closely watched in a comfortable room to make sure they didn't experience what is commonly known as a "bad trip," researchers said.

However, researchers were not releasing much information about what exactly the participants did experience, other than this statement from the study author that was released in a press statement:

"Many of the volunteers in our study reported, in one way or another, a direct, personal experience of the 'Beyond,' " said study leader Roland Griffiths, a professor with Hopkins' departments of Neuroscience and Psychiatry and Behavioral Biology.

According to Johns Hopkins, psilocybin is one of a class of serotonin receptors compounds (similar to the chemical used in many antidepressants) whose effects include changes in perception and cognition. Some call them "hallucinogenic," while other researchers are more inclined to call them "spirit-facilitating," the hospital's press release said.

Because it is illegal to possess psilocybin in all states but Florida and New Mexico, the study is attracting the attention of many ethicists and doctors and even the scientists at the federal National Institute on Drug Abuse, one of the funding entities for the study.

Yesterday, NIDA Director Dr. Nora Volkow released this statement critical of the study.

"Although there is no evidence that psilocybin is addictive, its adverse effects are well known. Similar to the more commonly known hallucinogen LSD (acid), psilocybin acts on serotonin receptors in the brain to profoundly distort a person's perceptions of reality," the statement said. "Psilocybin can trigger psychosis in susceptible individuals and cause other deleterious psychological effects, such as paranoia and extreme anxiety.

However, Griffiths, the study author, said extremely rigorous ethical standards were maintained throughout the research process, and that the value of learning the potential medical and psychological benefits of hallucinogens should not be ignored.

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