In the 1950s scientists studied the effects of so-called psychedelics: psilocybin from mushrooms, mescaline from cacti and the synthetic lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD. British psychiatrist Humphry Osmond coined the name for this class of drugs based on their mind-altering properties, such as changes in the sense of self. The drugs showed some initial promise in treating chronic pain and depression in terminally ill patients but a wave of recreational abuse in the late 1960s led to outlawing and a halt in research. Now a new, rigorous, double-blind study has reopened the doors of scientific investigation, reporting spiritual effects and long-term impacts from the use of psilocybin.

Neuroscientist Roland Griffiths of Johns Hopkins University and his colleagues tested the effects of psilocybin--a drug derived from certain mushrooms that appears to mimic the effects of serotonin in the brain--on 36 middle-aged Americans who had never tried psychedelics before. These "squares" ranged in age from 24 to 64 and included 14 men and 22 women, the majority of whom were college graduates, successful in their careers and participants in some form of spiritual activity.

The researchers randomly assigned the participants to receive psilocybin in either their first or second testing session. When not given psilocybin, the subjects received methylphenidate, more commonly known as Ritalin, which shares some of the pharmacological effects of its psychedelic counterpart. Prior to these sessions, the subjects met several times with a team of medical professionals who would monitor their experiences in order to establish trust and comfort.

Many researchers believe that psychedelic effects are driven in large part by expectations of the experience so neither monitors nor subjects knew when they would be given the psychoactive drug. This blinding seemed to work as even the medically experienced monitors misidentified which drug had been given in 23 percent of the sessions. In each session, the subjects lay down on a couch in a comfortable, living room-like environment and were encouraged to use an eye mask to block out visual distraction and headphones that offered classical music. Monitors were instructed to soothe patients via supportive talk or touch if they experienced any anxiety.

Immediately following the roughly eight-hour sessions, the participants were asked to fill out a series of questionnaires designed to probe the nature and quality of the experience. Twenty-two out of the 36 volunteers described a so-called mystical experience, or one that included feelings of unity with all things, transcendence of time and space as well as deep and abiding joy.

In follow-up interviews conducted two months later 67 percent of the volunteers rated the psilocybin experience as among the most meaningful of their lives, comparing it to the birth of a first child or the death of a parent, and 79 percent reported that it had moderately or greatly increased their overall sense of well-being or life satisfaction. Independent interviews of family members, friends and co-workers confirmed small but significant positive changes in the subject's behavior and more follow-ups are currently being conducted to determine if the effects persist a year later.

Further scientific investigation is warranted to determine how the drug achieves its effects as well as how they might be used in the treatment of "the ennui and anguish of impending death" as well as "alcoholism and other forms of drug addiction," argues Charles Schuster, a neuroscientist at Wayne State University and a former director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in a commentary on the paper. "The misuse of these substances cannot be allowed to continue to curtail their use as tools for understanding the neurobiology of human consciousness, self-awareness and their potential as therapeutic agents." The research and commentaries were published online yesterday in Psychopharmacology.