Using unusually rigorous scientific conditions and measures, Johns Hopkins researchers have shown that the active agent in "sacred mushrooms" can induce mystical/spiritual experiences descriptively identical to spontaneous ones people have reported for centuries.
The resulting experiences apparently prompt positive changes in behavior and attitude that last several months, at least.
The agent, a plant alkaloid called psilocybin, mimics the effect of serotonin on brain receptors-as do some other hallucinogens-but precisely where in the brain and in what manner are unknown.
An account of the study, accompanied by an editorial and four experts' commentaries, appears online today in the journal Psychopharmacology.
Cited as "landmark" in the commentary by former National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) director, Charles Schuster, the research marks a new systematic approach to studying certain hallucinogenic compounds that, in the 1950s, showed signs of therapeutic potential or value in research into the nature of consciousness and sensory perception. "Human consciousnessis a function of the ebb and flow of neural impulses in various regions of the brain-the very substrate that drugs such as psilocybin act upon," Schuster says. "Understanding what mediates these effects is clearly within the realm of neuroscience and deserves investigation."
"A vast gap exists between what we know of these drugs-mostly from descriptive anthropology-and what we believe we can understand using modern clinical pharmacology techniques," says study leader Roland Griffiths, Ph.D., a professor with Hopkins' departments of Neuroscience and Psychiatry and Behavioral Biology. "That gap is large because, as a reaction to the excesses of the 1960s, human research with hallucinogens has been basically frozen in time these last forty years."