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Study finds lasting benefit in banned mushroom drug

July 1, 2008
Associated Press

In 2002, at a Johns Hop­kins Uni­ver­s­ity lab­o­r­a­to­ry, a usi­ness con­sult­ant named Dede Os­born took a psych­e­del­ic drug as part of a re­search proj­ect.

She felt like she was tak­ing off. She saw col­ors. Then it elt like her heart was rip­ping open. But she called the ex­pe­ri­ence joy­ful as well as ain­ful, and says that it has helped her to this day.

Var­i­ous spe­cies of mush­rooms na­tive to trop­i­cal and subtrop­i­cal re­gions of South Amer­i­ca, Mex­i­co, and the Unit­ed States pro­duce the com­pound re­spon­si­ble for the ef­fect of "ma­gic mush­rooms." (Im­age cour­te­sy N.J. D.O.J.)


“I feel more cen­tered in who I am and what I’m do­ing,” said Os­born, now 66, of rov­i­dence, R.I. “I don’t seem to have those self-doubts like I used to have. I feel much more grounded (and feel that) we are all con­nect­ed.”

Sci­en­tists re­ported Tues­day that when they sur­veyed vol­un­teers 14 months af­ter they took the drug, most said they were still fel­ing and be­hav­ing bet­ter be­cause of the ex­pe­ri­ence.

Two-thirds of them al­so said the drug had pro­duced one of the five most spir­it­u­ally sig­nif­i­cnt ex­pe­ri­ences they’d ev­er had.

The drug, psil­o­cy­bin, is found in so-called “magic mush­rooms.” It’s il­le­gal, but it as been used in re­li­gious cer­e­monies for cen­turies.

The study in­volved 36 men and wom­en dur­ing an eight-hour lab vis­it. It’s one of the few such sud­ies of a hal­lu­cin­o­gens in the past 40 years, since re­search was largely shut down af­ter wide­spread recrea­t­ional abuse of such drugs in the 1960s.

The proj­ect made head­lines in 2006 when re­search­ers pub­lished their re­port on how the vol­un­ters felt just two months af­ter tak­ing the drug. The new study fol­lowed them up a year af­ter that.

Ex­perts em­pha­size that peo­ple should not try psil­o­cy­bin on their on be­cause it could be harm­ful. Even in the con­trolled set­ting of the lab­o­r­a­to­ry, nearly a third of par­ti­ci­pants felt sig­nif­i­cant fear un­der the ef­fects of the drug. With­out prop­er su­per­vi­sion, some­one could be harmed, re­search­ers said.

Os­born, in a tel­e­phone in­ter­view, re­caled a pow­er­ful feel­ing of be­ing out of con­trol dur­ing her lab ex­pe­ri­ence. “It was ... like tak­ing off, I’m be­ing lifted up,” she said. Then came “bril­liant col­ors and beau­ti­ful pat­terns, just stun­ningly gor­geous, more in­tense than nor­mal real­ity.”

And then, the sensa­t­ion that her hart was tear­ing open. “It would come in waves,” she re­called. “I found my­slf do­ing Lamaze-type breath­ing as the pain came on.” Yet “it was a joy­ful, ec­stat­ic thing at the same time, like the joy of be­ing alive,” she said. She com­paed it to birthing pains. “There was this sense of re­lief and joy and ec­sta­sy when my heart was opened.”

With fur­ther re­search, psil­o­cy­bin (pro­nounced SILL-oh-SY-bin) may prve use­ful in help­ing to treat al­co­hol­ism and drug de­pend­ence, and in aid­ing se­ri­ously ill pa­tients as they deal with psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­tress, said study lead au­thor Ro­land Grif­fiths of Johns Hop­kins.

Grif­fiths al­so said that e­spite the spir­it­u­al char­ac­ter­is­tics re­ported for the drug ex­pe­ri­ences, the study said noth­ing about wheth­er God ex­ists. “Is this God in a pill? Ab­so­lutely not,” he sid.

The ex­pe­ri­ment was funded in part by the Na­tional In­sti­tute on Drug Abuse. The re­slts were pub­lished on­line Tues­day by the Jour­nal of Psy­cho­phar­ma­co­logy.

Four­teen months af­ter tak­ing the drug, 64 per­cent of the vol­un­teers said they still felt at least a od­er­ate in­crease in well-be­ing or life sat­is­fac­tion, in terms of things like feel­ing more cre­a­tive, self-con­fi­dent, flex­i­ble and op­ti­mis­tic. And 61 per­cent re­ported at least a mod­er­ate be­hav­ior change in what they con­sid­ered pos­i­tive ways.

That sec­ond ques­tion did­n’t ask for de­tails, but else­where the qes­tionnaire an­swers in­di­cat­ed last­ing gains in traits like be­ing more sen­si­tive, tol­er­ant, lov­ing and com­pas­sion­ate.

Re­search­ers did­n’t try to cor­rob­o­rate what the par­ti­ci­pants said about their on be­hav­ior. But in the ear­li­er anal­y­sis at two months af­ter the drug was giv­en, re­search­ers said family and friends backed up what those in the study said about be­hav­ior changes. Grif­fiths said he has no rea­son to doubt the an­swers at 14 months.

Charles Grob, a pro­fes­sor of psy­chi­a­try and pe­di­at­rics at the Harbor-UCLA Med­i­cal Cen­ter, called the new work an im­pr­tant fol­low-up to the first stu­dy. He said it is help­ing to reo­pen for­mal study of psych­e­del­ic drugs. Grob is on the board of the Hefter Re­search In­sti­tute, which pro­motes stud­ies of psych­e­del­ic sub­stances and helped pay for the new work.


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