Hopkins researchers study therapeutic use of psilocybin in magic mushrooms
Psilocybin therapy; dosing explored
Researchers from Johns Hopkins are studying the potential for therapy from psilocybin, or magic mushroom, also known as “sacred mushrooms”. In carefully controlled trials, the scientists found potential therapeutic applications for the chemical compound in psychedelic mushrooms that they say could lead to long lasting, positive behavioral changes and increased spirituality, with occasional, guided use, and the right dosing. The notion is that psilocybin could help terminally ill patients as well as individuals with destructive behaviors or relationship problems.
In the studies, researchers looked at different doses of psilocybin that is the main ingredient in psychoactive mushrooms. Sacred mushrooms have been used for centuries in some cultures as a bridge to healing and increased spirituality.
The goal of the studies is finding the right dosing of psilocybin that could induce long-lasting, positive experiences.
Guided psilocybin therapy ongoing; feedback positive from participants
Hopkins researchers studied psilocybin in 18 healthy volunteers, and a third trial is underway. In the carefully controlled guided sessions, 94 percent of the volunteers rated a psilocybin session as one of the top five spiritual experiences of their life.
The scientists are specifically looking at the right dose of sacred mushrooms that could be used to help terminally ill patients and lead to increased spirituality. In the experiments, higher doses of the hallucinogen induced fear and anxiety in one third of the participants that was managed with reassurance from the study monitors.
Eighty-nine percent experienced positive behavior changes that included improved relationships, greater devotion to spiritual practice and increased psychological and physical self-care.
According to one of the study volunteers, “I have a stronger desire for devotion; have increased yoga practice and prayer.... I need less food to make me full. My alcohol use has diminished dramatically.”
Another study participant said, “I feel that I relate better in my marriage. There is more empathy – a greater understanding of people and understanding their difficulties and less judgment.”
Compared to higher doses of psilocybin, study participants given lower doses were more likely to remember mystical experiences and have longer lasting behavior changes.
Roland Griffiths, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and neuroscience at Hopkins said, “Previously, we looked at a single high dose of and showed that it occasioned these mystical-type experiences that had profoundly meaningful and spiritually significant effects.” He says those reactions can be avoided by backing down the dose five-fold “while only marginally decreasing the mystical-type experiences.”
He also warns against taking psilocybin recreationally because it’s impossible to know what dose you’re getting. “Within mushrooms, the content of psilocybin can vary tenfold.” Hallucinogenics can produce schizophrenia, especially for those genetically predisposed, warns Griffith.
In the experiments, which were partly funded by the Council on Spiritual Practices, one third of the participants experienced anxiety and fear that was not long lasting In some cases, psilocybin causes negative experiences that persisted for hours, which according to Griffiths is one of the dangers. He says, “People can have panic reactions, fearful reactions, and the danger is that they’re going to engage in dangerous behaviors that then put themselves or others at risk.”
Notably, positive experiences from taking psilocybin persisted for up to 14 months in the well-controlled studies that were guided and performed in a living-room like setting. Participants who experienced fear and anxiety reported positive changes later on.
Rick Doblin, PhD, director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies in Santa Cruz, California said, “Those are emotions that we anticipate, and to a certain degree, people need to work through them.”
The studies show there may be therapeutic applications for sacred mushrooms that contain the psychoactive substance psilocybin. The newest psilocybin study is published in the journal Psychopharmacology.
Jerome Jaffe, M.D., of the University of Maryland School of Medicine, who served as the first White House “Drug Czar” and consultant to the World Health Organization on drug issues, said, “The Hopkins psilocybin studies clearly demonstrate that this route to the mystical is not to be walked alone. But they have also demonstrated significant and lasting benefits.”
Should psilocybin be allowed in our culture?
Jaffe says the question is: "Could psilocybin-occasioned experiences prove therapeutically useful, for example in dealing with the psychological distress experienced by some terminal patients? And should properly-informed citizens, not in distress, be allowed to receive psilocybin for its possible spiritual benefits, as we now allow them to pursue other possibly risky activities such as cosmetic surgery and mountain-climbing?”
Matthew Johnson, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins and lead author of an earlier Hopkins paper about the safety of hallucinogens says psilocybin is extremely nontoxic to the body’s organs, but there are many factors worth considering about the indirect risk of psychoactive compounds that can induce high states of anxiety, but can be minimized with guided therapy sessions and skilled monitoring. Participants were carefully screened for the studies.
Psychopharmacology: DOI: 10.1007/s00213-006-0457-5
“Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance”
R. R. Griffiths, W. A. Richards, U. McCann and R. Jesse
Image credit: Wikimedia commons