In a follow-up to research showing that psilocybin, a
substance contained in "sacred
mushrooms," produces substantial spiritual effects, a Johns
Hopkins team reports that those
beneficial effects appear to last more than a year.
Writing in the Journal of Psychopharmacology,
the Johns Hopkins researchers note that most
of the 36 volunteer subjects given psilocybin, under
controlled conditions in a Johns Hopkins study
published in 2006, continued to say 14 months later that
the experience increased their sense of well-
being or life satisfaction.
"Most of the volunteers looked back on their
experience up to 14 months later and rated it as
the most, or one of the five most, personally meaningful
and spiritually significant of their lives," said
lead investigator Roland Griffiths, a professor in the
Johns Hopkins departments of
Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and
In a related paper, also published in the Journal of
Psychopharmacology, researchers offer
recommendations for conducting this type of research.
The guidelines caution against giving hallucinogens to
people at risk for psychosis or certain
other serious mental disorders. Detailed guidance is also
provided for preparing participants and
providing psychological support during and after the
hallucinogen experience. These "best practices"
contribute both to safety and to the standardization called
for in human research.
"With appropriately screened and prepared individuals,
under supportive conditions and with
adequate supervision, hallucinogens can be given with a
level of safety that compares favorably with
many human research and medical procedures," said that
paper's lead author, Matthew W. Johnson, a
psychopharmacologist and instructor in Psychiatry and
The two reports follow a 2006 study published in
another journal, Psychopharmacology, in which
60 percent of a group of 36 healthy, well-educated
volunteers with active spiritual lives reported
having a "full mystical experience" after taking
Psilocybin, a plant alkaloid, exerts its influence on
some of the same brain receptors that
respond to the neurotransmitter serotonin. Mushrooms
containing psilocybin have been used in some
cultures for hundreds of years or more for religious,
divinatory and healing purposes.
Fourteen months later, Griffiths re-administered the
questionnaires used in the first study —
along with a specially designed set of follow-up questions
— to all 36 subjects. Results showed that
about the same proportion of the volunteers ranked their
experience in the study as the single most,
or one of the five most, personally meaningful or
spiritually significant events of their lives and
regarded it as having increased their sense of well-being
or life satisfaction.
"This is a truly remarkable finding," Griffiths said.
"Rarely in psychological research do we see
such persistently positive reports from a single event in
the laboratory. This gives credence to the
claims that the mystical-type experiences some people have
during hallucinogen sessions may help
patients suffering from cancer-related anxiety or
depression and may serve as a potential treatment
for drug dependence. We're eager to move ahead with that
Griffiths also notes that "while some of our subjects
reported strong fear or anxiety for a
portion of their daylong psilocybin sessions, none reported
any lingering harmful effects, and we didn't
observe any clinical evidence of harm."
The research team cautions that if hallucinogens are
used in less-well-supervised settings, the
possible fear or anxiety responses could lead to harmful
These studies were funded by grants from NIDA, the
Council on Spiritual Practices and the
Heffter Research Institute.
Additional researchers who contributed to this work
are Una D. McCann, of the Johns Hopkins
Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences; William
A. Richards, of Johns Hopkins Bayview
Medical Center; and Robert Jesse, of the Council on
Spiritual Practices, San Francisco.