Looking for Mushroom Magic?

I understand there was a recent study of psychedelic mushrooms. I haven’t heard anything about "magic mushrooms" for years. What’s up?

– October 16, 2006

The latest on magic mushrooms is pretty exciting. Researchers at Johns Hopkins have published what has been described as a "landmark" study seeking further understanding of drugs that can affect human consciousness and, beyond that, how thought, emotion and, ultimately behavior are grounded in biology. The Hopkins researchers looked at the effects of psilocybin, the active agent in sacred or "magic" mushrooms responsible for their spiritual or mystical effects. Controversy surrounding the drug culture of the 1960s pretty much closed the door on scientific research into what substances like psilocybin might reveal about the nature of consciousness and what beneficial effects they might have. The Hopkins study was published in the July 11, 2006, online edition of Psychopharmacology and generated front-page news around the world.

The researchers noted that more than 60 percent of their 36 volunteers reported effects that met criteria for a "full mystical experience" as defined by established psychological scales. One third of the participants said that the experience was the single most spiritually significant of their lives and more than two-thirds rated it among their five most meaningful and spiritually significant events. The effects appeared to be lasting: two months after the study ended, 79 percent of the subjects reported "moderately or greatly increased well-being or life satisfaction" compared with volunteers who got a placebo rather than the psilocybin.

On the downside, about one third of the study subjects reported extreme anxiety in response to the drug that researchers said could escalate into dangerous behavior under less carefully controlled conditions. In my experience, effects of psychoactive drugs are very dependent on set and setting (expectation and environment), and the probability of negative reactions to them can be minimized by attention to these variables.

The average age of the study volunteers was 46 and none had a history of drug abuse or mental illness. Because of the reputed effects of psilocybin, the researchers sought out volunteers with an interest in spirituality. Each of the subjects attended two eight-hour drug sessions, two months apart. At one session they got the psilocybin; at the other, they got Ritalin, the active placebo.

The same group of researchers is now planning a study to test psilocybin on patients suffering from depression or anxiety related to advanced cancer and is designing other studies to investigate whether psilocybin can help treat drug dependence.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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