By David Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 11, 2006; A08
Psilocybin, the active ingredient of "magic mushrooms," expands the mind. After a thousand years of use, that's now scientifically official.
The chemical promoted a mystical experience in two-thirds of people who took it for the first time, according to a new study. One-third rated a session with psilocybin as the "single most spiritually significant" experience of their lives. Another third put it in the top five.
The study, published online today in the journal Psychopharmacology, is the first randomized, controlled trial of a substance used for centuries in Mexico and Central America to produce mystical insights. Almost no research on a psychedelic drug in human subjects has been done in this country since the 1960s. It confirms what both shamans and hippies have long said -- taking psilocybin is a scary, reality-bending and occasionally life-changing experience.
The researchers say they hope the experiment opens a door to the study of a class of compounds that alter human perception and erode the boundaries of self -- at least in some users. They hope it will provide new insight into how the brain works and what neurochemical events underlie moments of mystical rapture.
If the generally positive effects of the drug are confirmed by other studies, the research is likely to raise the question of whether people should be allowed access to psilocybin for self-improvement or recreation.
Rigorous study of these substances has been shunned since the 1960s, although it is not legally prohibited. Research on them was a casualty of the muddled mix of science and advocacy by people like Timothy Leary, the LSD guru and former Harvard psychologist once called the "most dangerous man in America" by President Richard M. Nixon.
"Our study has shown we can conduct a study of this type safely, and that the effects produced are really quite interesting," said Roland R. Griffiths of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, who ran the experiment. "There is a clear neuroscience agenda to understand those effects, and clear clinical applications that could be pursued."
Other brain researchers hailed the experiment as much for the fact that it was done at all as for its findings.
"These are some of the most potent compounds we know of that can change consciousness," said David E. Nichols, a professor of medicinal chemistry at Purdue University who has studied the effects of psychedelics on rats and cultured cells. "It's kind of peculiar they have just been kind of sitting on the shelf for 40 years. There is no other class of biologically active substances I am aware of that have been ignored like that."
The study, which involved 36 middle-aged adults from the Baltimore-Washington area, was conducted over five years. The subjects were chosen from 135 people who answered newspaper ads. All said they were members of a religious organization, practiced meditation or took part in other spiritual activity.
The study was designed to minimize the effects of anticipation and group enthusiasm, which might color a person's response. It also sought to examine the delayed, as well as immediate, effects of the drug.
The volunteers were randomly assigned to take either 30 milligrams of psilocybin (chemically synthesized, not extracted from mushrooms) or 40 milligrams of methylphenidate, the stimulant sold as Ritalin. The sessions lasted eight hours in a room where a person could listen to music, relax on a couch with eyeshades or talk with two monitors always in attendance. Each subject then took the other drug in a different session two months later.
Of the 36 people, 22 had a "complete" mystical experience as judged by several question-based scales used for rating such experiences. Two-thirds judged it to be among their top five life experiences, equal to the birth of a first child or death of a parent. Two months after a session, the people who had taken psilocybin reported small but significant positive changes in behavior and attitudes compared with those who had taken Ritalin.
One-third of the subjects, however, said they experienced "strong or extreme" fear at some point in the hours after they took the hallucinogen. Four people said the entire session was dominated by anxiety or psychological struggle.
Nichols thinks that last finding should give people pause.
"I think these drugs are potentially very dangerous," he said. "I would be very disappointed if in any sense these results were used to encourage recreational use of these compounds. I wouldn't want to take responsibility for anyone under unmonitored conditions coming up with those feelings."
Alan Leshner, who headed the National Institute on Drug Abuse for seven years and now leads the American Association for the Advancement of Science, was both wary and excited about psilocybin's reported effects.
"If it is ultimately shown to be benign but enriches people's lives, who could object to that? But I don't have that level of confidence at this point, given the paucity of research on it," he said.
A scholar of mysticism, G. William Barnard of Southern Methodist University, suspects that most mystical traditions would not object to the idea that a chemical could allow a person to tune into a preexisting state of consciousness, usually ignored, just as fasting, prayer, yoga and other activities can. But there is less enthusiasm for the idea that this kind of research will unlock the mechanism of mystical insight.
"Most people I suspect would say that the neurochemistry is not the full cause of these experiences," he said.