Although a given scientific paper probably has at least something fairly interesting or unique about it, most people aren’t going to be too interested in reading about, for example, the structural details of the protein-protein interactions between cytoplasmic integrin tails and focal adhesion-associated proteins (my work).
But this paper… man, this is completely different. Not only could I not wait to read it, hell, I wished I was there when the experiments were taking place!
On July 7th, researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine published a paper in Psychopharmacology that has been hailed as “the first well-designed, placebo-controlled, clinical study in more than four decades to examine the psychological consequences of the effects of the hallucinogenic (psychedelic) agent known as psilocybin.” And for good reason, too.
Since the 1960s, research on mind-altering drugs has largely been considered taboo in the US and elsewhere. Even research on the commonplace drug marijuana has been surprisingly limited, considering its potential therapeutic effects. This has led to a les than thorough understanding of these drugs, their effects, and their mechanisms. This, in turn has for the most part precluded their use in a medical setting and has led to illegal substance laws that are based much more on politics than on science.
The current study (see bottom for full citation), though, attempts to bridge some of these gaps and shine a light into this darkness through the systematic testing of the psychological effects of psilocybin, the active ingredient in mushrooms of the genus Psilocybe (‘shrooms, magic mushrooms), which are commonly ingested in recreational drug use. Psilocybin, a hallucinogen, has a chemical structure resembling that of the neurotransmitter serotonin, and it presumably acts by overstimulating serotonin receptors in the brain. For more a more detailed description of the chemistry of psilocybin, visit Paul May’s Molecule of the Month site.
In this study, scientists examined the ability of psilocybin to elicit mystical experiences in subjects, and then they had subjects rate the significance of these experiences. The study used double-blind methodology, meaning subjects were randomly assigned to either receive psilocybin or methylphenidate (Ritalin) as a control for the placebo effect, and neither the subject nor the examiner was aware of which the subject had received:
The participants were hallucinogen-naive adults reporting regular participation in religious or spiritual activities. Two or three sessions were conducted at 2-month intervals. Thirty volunteers received orally administered psilocybin (30 mg/70 kg) and methylphenidate hydrochloride (40 mg/70 kg) in counterbalanced order. To obscure the study design, six additional volunteers received methylphenidate in the first two sessions and unblinded psilocybin in a third session. The 8-h sessions were conducted individually. Volunteers were encouraged to close their eyes and direct their attention inward. Study monitors rated volunteers’ behavior during sessions. Volunteers completed questionnaires assessing drug effects and mystical experience immediately after and 2 months after sessions. Community observers rated changes in the volunteer’s attitudes and behavior.
The study design was solid, giving significant credibility to the results:
Psilocybin produced a range of acute perceptual changes, subjective experiences, and labile moods including anxiety. Psilocybin also increased measures of mystical experience. At 2 months, the volunteers rated the psilocybin experience as having substantial personal meaning and spiritual significance and attributed to the experience sustained positive changes in attitudes and behavior consistent with changes rated by community observers…. When administered under supportive conditions, psilocybin occasioned experiences similar to spontaneously occurring mystical experiences.
Here’s the thing, though. These people weren’t just getting high. They were having life-altering experiences:
Two-thirds of the subjects who received psilocybin rated it as either the single most meaningful experience of their lives or within the top five, and the paper notes that “the volunteers judged the meaningfulness of the experience to be similar, for example, to the birth of a first child or death of a parent.” Whoa, that’s intense. Even months later, subjects who had taken psilocybin reported overall better mental health and a more positive outlook on life than those how did not receive psilocybin. No long-term negative side effects were observed, although while under the influence of psilocybin some subjects reported fear or paranoia.
These results are impressive, and they apparently surprised the authors of the study as well, according to an AP story. This study demonstrates that, at least under some settings, drug experimentation can have substantially positive effects, and it further validates the centuries-old tradition of some Native Americans using psilocybin in religious ceremonies.
Most importantly, this study demonstrates just how much there is to be learned about currently illegal drugs and just how productive systematic studies of these drugs can be. Hopefully this study will serve as a model for others. As our knowledge base increases, it is likely that we’ll find novel uses for some of these drugs. In addition, these studies will provide more evidence to counter the prevailing wisdom behind our misguided and unscientific war on drugs.
In the meantime, though, I guess it’s all systems go for recreational drug users. Right?
But don’t try this at home, [lead author Griffiths] warned. “Absolutely don’t.”
R.R. Griffiths, W.A. Richards, U. McCann, R. Jesse, Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance, Psychopharmacology 187 (2006), 268-83.
The psychadelic mushroom photo comes from The Randomness Continues.