Scientists are to investigate a hallucinogenic chemical in “magic mushrooms” as a possible new treatment for depression, anxiety and drug dependence.
The move follows an unusual study which showed that the compound, psilocybin, can prompt long lasting positive changes in mood and behaviour.
Researchers also found that people who took the chemical experienced genuine mystical experiences, as defined by psychologists.
A third of the 36 study participants described their psilocybin experience as the “most spiritually significant” of their lives.
Some likened it to the importance of the birth of their first child or the death of a parent.
Magic mushrooms, or “shrooms”, come in several varieties, all of which contain psilocybin.
Until last year a loophole in the law meant they were not illegal in their natural state in the UK.
Under the Drugs Act 2005 they are now classified as a Class A drug, like heroin or cocaine. Possession may be punishable by several years in jail, while supplying the mushrooms could result in a life sentence.
Professor Roland Griffiths, from Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions in Baltimore, Maryland, USA, led the study, the first rigorous investigation of the effects of “tripping” on a drug for decades.
The volunteers were all healthy, well-educated, mostly middle-aged and with no family history of psychotic illness.
Each attended two separate eight hour drug sessions at two month intervals. On one occasion they received psilocybin, on the other the drug Ritalin which was used as a placebo.
Medical professionals were on hand to act as “monitors” and observe what happened. Neither the participants nor the monitors knew when the test drug was being taken.
The trials took place in a room fitted out as a comfortable lounge, with soft music and indirect lighting.
Heart rate and blood pressure were measured, and questionnaires used to assess volunteers’ experiences.
During the study, more than 60% of those taking part described the effects of psilocybin in ways that met the recognised criteria of a “full mystical experience”.
Two months later, 79% reported moderately or greatly increased well being or levels of life-satisfaction.
Most said their mood, attitudes and behaviour had changed for the better. This was confirmed by interviews with family members, friends and work colleagues.
The findings were published today in the journal Psychopharmacology.
Prof Griffiths said: “Under very defined conditions, with careful preparation, you can safely and fairly reliably occasion what’s called a primary mystical experience that may lead to positive changes in a person. It’s an early step in what we hope will be a large body of scientific work that will ultimately help people.”
The scientists said scrupulous care was taken to minimise adverse side effects and warned of the dangers of taking psilocybin unsupervised.
Even under the controlled conditions of the study, a third of participants reported significant fear, and some experienced temporary feelings of paranoia.
“Under unmonitored conditions, it’s not hard to imagine those emotions escalating to panic and dangerous behaviour,” said Prof Griffiths.
His team now intends to look into the therapeutic potential of the magic mushroom chemical.
Trials are planned involving patients suffering from cancer-related depression or anxiety. Other studies will test a role for psilocybin in the treatment of drug dependence.
Prof Griffiths said human research into the potential positive effects of hallucinogen drugs had been “frozen in time” for 40 years due to the excesses of the 1960s.
A number of promising leads were left “dangling” as a result.
“Our study is among the first to re-open this field,” said Prof Griffiths.
Another expert commentating on the work in the same journal said he did not think the research would spark off a wave of experimentation with magic mushrooms.
Dr Herbert Kleber, Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University in New York wrote: “The positive findings of the study cannot help but raise concern in some that it will lead to increased experimenting with these substances by youth in the kind of uncontrolled and unmonitored fashion that produced casualties over the past three decades.
“Any study reporting a positive or useful effect of a drug of abuse raises these same concerns. In this internet age, however, where youth are deluged with glowing personal reports in chat rooms and web sites as well as detailed information about the various agents and how to use them, it is less likely that a scientific study would move the needle much.”
Magic mushrooms produce “trips” lasting between four and eight hours.
Users see hallucinogenic visions, lose track of time, and may experience laughing fits. Colours and lights are intensified.
Among the known adverse effects are vomiting, anxiety and paranoia. “Shrooms” are especially risky for anyone with mental problems.
The fungi have a long history in human culture, and have been taken for their drug effects for several thousand years.
Magic mushrooms are linked to ancient religious ceremonies, such as those practised by the Aztecs, who called them “Teonanacati”, or “God’s flesh”.
In European folklore, tales of flying witches and fairy rings, and depictions of elves sitting on toadstools, have all been ascribed to magic mushroom “trips”.
The first documented magic mushroom experience in Britain occurred in London’s Green Park in 1799. A man who had been picking mushrooms for breakfast accidentally sent his whole family on a trip.
The doctor who treated them described in the Medical and Physical Journal how the youngest child was “attacked with fits of immoderate laughter”.
It has been suggested that magic mushrooms influenced Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland.
A hookah-smoking caterpillar urges Alice to eat pieces of mushroom which has the effect of making her grow and shrink.
Copyright Press Association 2006
Jordan Maxwell om «The Sacred Mushroom«, spol frem til 1t37min:
The Pharmacratic Inquisition 2007 DVD: