People who took magic mushrooms were still feeling the love more than a year later, and one might say they were on cloud nine about it, scientists report in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.
"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," comparing it with the birth of a child or the death of a parent, says neuroscientist Roland Griffiths of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, who led the research. "It's one thing to have a dramatic experience you say is impressive. It's another thing to say you consider it as meaningful 14 months later. There's something about the saliency of these experiences that's stunning."
Griffiths gave 36 specially screened volunteers psilocybin, the active ingredient in so-called magic mushrooms. The compound is believed to affect perception and cognition by acting on the same receptors in the brain that respond to serotonin, a neurotransmitting chemical tied to mood.
Afterward, about two thirds of the group reported having a "full mystical experience," characterized by a feeling of "oneness" with the universe. When Griffiths asked them how they were doing 14 months later, the same proportion gave the experience high marks for transcendental satisfaction, and credited it with increasing their well-being since then.
But some scientists noted that this psilocybin study was just the first trip on a long journey of understanding. "We don't know how far we can generalize these results," cautions neuroscientist Charles Schuster of Loyola University Chicago and a former director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. "To attribute all of this to the drug, I think, is a mistake and to expect the same effects from simply taking the drug without this careful preparation in these kinds of people would be a mistake."
Herbert Kleber, who directs the division of substance abuse at Columbia University also notes that it is difficult to assess the mushroom's impact without detailed information on how individual lives were changed. For example, it remains unclear from the study whether volunteers really were more altruistic or simply claimed to be.
But the findings do seem to support reports of recreational users and what LSD guru and 1960s counterculture icon Timothy Leary made famous in his psychedelic lab at Harvard University.
Griffiths and Schuster are proponents of future research on psilocybin to determine whether it has long-term influence on the brain—and whether the reported mystical effects affect memory alone or stem from other physiological changes. This study is among the first of so-called "shrooms" in four decades, coming after the widespread, illegal use of hallucinogens as recreational drugs in the 1960s, which turned off corporate and academic researchers.
"I don't think the evidence is sufficiently strong for any beneficial effect in general for us to consider changing the legality of these substances until a great deal more research is done," Schuster says. "But the illegality should not interfere with this research."
For his part, Griffiths is now recruiting terminally ill cancer patients for a trial that will test whether psilocybin mitigates the existential anxiety that comes with facing death. Strangely enough, he says, it may also be a salve for alcoholism and drug addiction.
"It does sound counterintuitive," Griffiths says. But, "six of the 12 AA [Alcoholics Anonymous] steps are related to a higher power and surrendering to it. Many people don't engage fully into the 12-step program because they don't have a connection to a higher power. One can't help but wonder whether an experience like this might be useful."