Using the active ingredient in illegal hallucinogenic mushrooms, researchers at Johns Hopkins University have induced a lingering sense of spirituality that they believe has the potential to help patients struggling with addiction or terminal cancer.
Researchers said that the 36 subjects in the tightly controlled experiment -- none of whom had ever taken the drug before -- already had deep religious convictions, which primed them for a mystical experience.
About a third of them experienced feelings of anxiety and depression during their single, hours-long drug trip.
Despite the dangers, researchers concluded that psilocybin, the compound in the mushrooms, might have therapeutic value in improving the outlook of addicts and terminal cancer patients under enormous psychological burdens.
The study, published today in the medical journal Psychopharmacology, is one of a handful looking at the potential of a classic 1960s counterculture drug. Neurological discoveries in the last decade have revived scientific interest in the drug's ability to alter the chemistry of the brain. At UCLA, for example, researchers are studying the drug as psychological therapy for cancer patients.
The National Institute of Drug Abuse and the Council on Spiritual Practices, a Berkeley-based organization that studies drugs and spirituality, funded the research.
The findings are in some ways unsurprising, as the hallucinogenic effect of the drugs -- used by some Native American groups for religious rituals -- has been known for centuries. Some experts said the results harkened back to the decades-old utopian visions of Timothy Leary, who urged a generation to tune in and drop out.
"This is old stuff," said Father Harvey D. Egan, a professor of theology at Boston College, adding that it didn't take a scientific experiment to know that psilocybin users felt that their experience under the influence was at times transcendent -- whether it really was or not.
Psilocybin acts on a part of the brain stimulated by serotonin, a brain chemical associated with mood and a sense of well-being. It is in the same drug class as LSD. Drugs such as Prozac regulate serotonin, but in a different way.
The Johns Hopkins researchers were interested in inducing a mystical experience because of the widely recognized value of creating a sense of spirituality to help people overcome fears and psychological problems.
For some addiction treatment groups, surrendering to a higher power is a key step toward a patient's rehabilitation. Alcoholics Anonymous uses spirituality as part of its 12-step treatment program.
The researchers recruited well-educated middle-aged people who had never taken hallucinogenic drugs. They advertised in newspapers and posted fliers in churches and meditation halls in the Baltimore area.
It took the researchers six years to come up with 36 subjects.
Volunteers took the drug while listening to classical music in comfortable rooms. A trained monitor stayed with each participant until the drug trip ended.
Afterward, they were asked to rate their experiences for sacredness, transcendence, unity and intuitive knowledge. Two-thirds of them described their drug trip as among the five most profound events in their lives, rivaling the birth of a child.
The subjects were surveyed two months later and reported that they continued to feel a sense of well-being.
Some said they had the same feelings a year later.
Lead author Roland R. Griffiths said psilocybin was no "God pill," but rather a chemical process. The interplay of brain chemicals sparked by psilocybin could explain the biology underlying spiritual experiences.
The process "could be the basis of ethics and morality," he said.
Dr. Richard P. Sloan, a professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University School of Medicine, who was not involved in the research, said it was a mistake to reduce spirituality to a function of brain chemistry.
"I would think religious people would find it objectionable to describe the religious experience as a product of neurochemistry with no intrinsic truth," he said.
David E. Nichols, a Purdue University chemist who synthesized psilocybin for use in the study, said the effects of psilocybin could vary greatly, depending on the mood of the user, and could be dangerous.
"If you take psilocybin and go watch 'Friday the 13th,' I can guarantee you won't have a mystical experience," he said.