July 11, 2006 -- 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.
"[The study] shows that, under carefully controlled conditions, psilocybin can be administered safely and that it can occasion a mystical-type experience, which scientific measures say are very similar to spontaneously occurring mystical experiences" Griffiths said in an e-mail to ABC News. "The results suggest that such events may have lastingly beneficial consequences."
Other scientists familiar with hallucinogens and pharmaceuticals also praised the possible benefits of studying such chemicals.
"I was most impressed by the large percentage of individuals who reported a much more positive effect afterwards. That to me is very significant. They are thinking of taking this to cancer patients and difficult substance abusers," said James A. Smith, chairman of the Physiology and Pharmacology Department at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center.
The work is similar to the "Good Friday" experiment conducted in1962 by a minister and doctor said Rick Doblin, president of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. In that study, psilocybin also produced mystical experiences in most of the participants.
"This kind of work should be a top priority of our society. People have some of the most profound experiences of their lives after taking psilocybin. This mystical experience they talk about from the Good Friday experiment is something that tends to have people become more tolerant and compassionate," Doblin said. "We're talking about how psilocybin is a tool that helps people have these remarkable experiences."
Just because the active ingredient is illegal doesn't mean it should not be studied, noted Dr. Jeffrey Kahn, the director of the Center for Bioethics at University of Minnesota.
"If you step back and ask: Have we ever used illegal drugs in other medical research? There is probably a long list of drugs that started off illegal but had very useful purposes in medicine, such as marijuana," Kahn said. "This study seems less unusual now than in the 1960s since many more people take medications or drugs now compared to the 60s."
However, the study raises important safety questions, said Laurie Zoloth, a professor of Medical Ethics and Humanities at Northwestern University in Chicago.
"There is no known antagonist for this drug, unlike others -- if someone's peak moment turns out to be... being eaten by a terrifying sea creature, there is no way to rescue them from the thing we used to call 'a bad trip,'" Zoloth said. "The long-term side effects are not known."
She also wasn't that impressed by the drug's effects on mood.
"If such an experience meant that you suddenly became aware of injustice, poverty and inequality in the world, and became devoted to caring for the vulnerable in a selfless manner, I might be more impressed," she said.
Dr. Rosamond Rhodes, a professor of Medical Education at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and director of Bioethics Education, questioned some elements of the study's design. Not only was the study limited to people with religious backgrounds, but religious experiences could have been subtly or unduly promoted by the research administrators.
"After each administration of the drug, they gave people the same set of questionnaires. As you ask people these questions each time, you are also directing them to focus that way... so it is suggesting," Rhodes said. "You are encouraging people to close their eyes, to concentrate, and you are not just doing this to regular people but to people who are religiously inclined. They are suggesting that this is what you are going to get from the drug, so they find a great deal of that sort of response, particularly to the drug psilocybin."
However, these things shouldn't necessarily limit the further study of previously shunned illegal drugs, said Dr. Scott Basinger, a drug researcher, and associate dean of the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
"I am in a city where Andrea Yates is being retried. ... All of the [psychiatric] testimony says that she has been in a profound depression for many years that she could not get out of," he said. "I am not saying that psilocybin would have helped Andrea Yates and she would not have killed her kids... I am saying that it is sad that in an age where we have so much pharmacological advancement we still have people that we cannot help."