Patients given psilocybin report continued well-being a year later.
The benefits for people who have had positive or even mystical experiences induced by the psychedelic drug psilocybin — the psychoactive ingredient in ‘magic mushrooms’ — linger for as much as a year, according to the latest follow-up study of such patients.
The study offers more support to those who argue that, when used responsibly, some drugs more commonly taken for leisure can safely be used to relieve the stress associated with severe chronic diseases such as cancer.
“This experience has a compelling meaningfulness and spiritual component to it that is strongly conserved over time,” argues the study's lead author, Roland Griffiths of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore.
Although only a single dose was administered to the 36 patients in the original study, they reportedly still considered the experience to have valuable after-effects at the time of the follow-up study.
A clutch of new studies using psilocybin are now planned or under way in the United States, hoping to alleviate cancer-related anxieties with only one dose that has a lasting, positive outcome for patients.
The latest study, published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology1, is a follow-up to a 2006 experiment in which Griffiths and colleagues gave high doses of psilocybin to 36 'spiritually inclined' volunteers who had never previously taken hallucinogens2. The participants were encouraged to focus their attention inward during their experience, and two months later many reported sustained, positive changes in their lives.
“Realization of unity of existence and relativity of ordinary consciousness … I have had glimpses of this before — but this was profound and sustained,” read one participant’s comments on the experience. Another remarked that, “it was so awesome to be with God [that] words can’t describe the experience.”
Previous studies have shown a similar effect, most famously the Good Friday Experiment of 1963 in which theology students were given psilocybin in a church. However, this experiment was not peer-reviewed, and many studies completed in the 1960s were often inadequately followed up. Griffiths was keen use measures adapted from modern studies to see if the life-enhancing qualities people described in 2006 still persisted.
Of the original 22 participants who had a ‘complete’ mystical experience as defined by the Pahnke-Richards Mystical Experience Questionnaire, all but one still satisfied the same criteria 14 months later.
“Most volunteers who had the mystical experience continue to endorse the same extent of positive changes in attitude, altruistic behaviour and mood," says Griffiths.
After 14 months, 67% of the participants rated the treatment as one of the five most spiritually significant moments of their lives, and 17% rated it as their single most spiritually profound experience. In addition, 64% of subjects reported that their sense of well-being or life satisfaction increased.
Griffiths says it is uncommon in psychopharmacology for a positive effect to last so long after a single dose.
However, the study is based on a retrospective questionnaire and a sample of already spiritually inclined people. Griffiths admits there is bias in the data, but says he is looking forward to moving on to more powerful prospective studies. “This opens up a host of scientific questions and therapeutic applications.”
But not everyone agrees that psychedelics have a place in medicine. Griffith Edwards, emeritus Professor of addiction research and co-founder of National Addiction Centre, says that while he respects the studies authors and their conclusions it must be remembered that such drugs can have serious bad effects as well as good ones. "People can have self-destructive and suicidal thoughts as well as mystical experiences," he says. Edwards add that he is worried about this being taken as a trigger for a new campaign for the medical profession. "There are other ways of helping people," he says.
Nevertheless, Charles Grob, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Medicine, recently finished treating his final patient in a study using psilocybin to treat cancer anxiety. He says studies on terminal cancer patients in the 1950s and 1960s found that those subjects who had a transcendent or transpersonal experience during their psychedelic treatment session also had the most dramatic subsequent reduction in anxiety, improved mood and better overall quality of life.
“The study provides a feasible treatment model for clinical conditions that are considered very difficult to treat,” says Grob. “Psychedelics, when utilized by capable facilitators under optimally safe conditions, may very well achieve therapeutic breakthroughs with what is often considered to be an extremely resistant and unresponsive patient population.”
Griffiths and his team have also published some proposed guidelines3 for the safe clinical use of hallucinogens. “We believe this research now can proceed safely but it should be done cautiously,” says Griffiths. “We’re eager that it not be disrupted again like it was for the last 40 years because scientifically there is so much promise in having this research move forward.”
Griffiths is currently recruiting subjects for a study using psilocybin to treat cancer anxiety, which will be conducted at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine where he is based.
Griffiths, R. R. et al. J. Psychopharmacol. Advance online publication doi:10.1177/0269881108094300 (2008).
Griffiths, R. R. et al. Psychopharmacology 187, 268–283 (2006).
Johnson, M. W., Richards, W. A. & Griffiths, R. R. J. Psychopharmacol. Advance online publication doi:10.1177/0269881108093587 (2008).
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Frood, A. Benefits of 'magic mushroom' therapy long lasting. Nature (2008). https://doi.org/10.1038/news.2008.934