The potential health benefits of tripping balls

Magic Mushrooms have been used by countless cultures across the world for thousands of years. From pre-historic folk tales of shamanic ceremonies to modern psychedelic trance parties, these mushrooms have always played an important medicinal and sometimes recreational role. Now, for the first time since the flower power revolution of the 60s, modern scientific research is being done to determine the actual mechanisms that the mushrooms employ to produce their effects, and to help find a place for their medicinal use in the 21st century.
On July 11, 2006, John Hopkins Medical Society published a report in the Journal of Psychopharmacology which described landmark research into the experience of the mushroom's main active component, psilocybin, which emulates the effects of the brain neurotransmitter serotonin, responsible for calm, positive states of mind. The results were impressive and adhered to strict scientific guidelines – double blinding, randomized sampling and a peer review of results. "This represents a landmark study, because it is applying modern techniques to an area of human experience that goes back as long as humankind has been here," said Charles Schuster, a former director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and a professor of psychiatry and behavioural neuroscience at Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit.
135 people volunteered for the five-year study and 36 were chosen. All were middle-aged, and all followed a spiritual practice of some form. The subjects were randomly assigned a dose of psilocybin or ritalin for an initial trial, and depending on their lot, were then given the opposite dose at a later date. The sessions lasted eight hours. Of the 36 people, 22 had full-blown mystical experiences and two-thirds deemed it to be one of the most important experiences in their lives (on par with child birth, for example). Fourteen months after the experiment, 64 percent of participants claimed they experienced a moderate rise in well-being in regards to creativity, confidence and optimism. 61 percent claimed a moderate yet positive behaviour change.
One participant, Dede Osborn of Providence, Rhode Island, had this to say about the study: “I feel more centered in who I am and what I'm doing ... I don't seem to have those self-doubts like I used to have. I feel much more grounded [and feel that] we are all connected."
John Hayes, a professor of pastoral counseling at Loyola College, said: “It gave me this sense that space and time are human constructions that can collapse ... The ultimate reality is something beyond those constructions, and more importantly, everything in the world is connected."
One-third of the subjects, however, found the experience fearful and sometimes terrifying. Four people claimed the session was dominated by an intense mental struggle, which emphasizes the need for a clinical setting for proper experimentation with this substance. Three vowed never to do it again. The Hopkins study took this into account and guided their patients through this part of their experience, lessening the potential for harmful psychological repercussions.
Irresponsible use has many potential side-affects, and in the 60s, in particular, the hippie movement saw first-hand what powerful magic these mushrooms could produce. "It was a crazy period where these compounds were irresponsibly promoted for recreational use, and their use was widespread," says Roland Griffiths, a psychiatrist who pioneered the Hopkins study. "We got into what appears to me to be a little bit of cultural hysteria about their risks. They were swept out of the research domain." The famous psychologist Dr. Timothy Leary of Harvard University, emboldened by the consciousness expanding characteristics of hallucinogenic plants and especially LSD, rigorously encouraged their use but failed to take into account the necessary safeguards that modern research has embraced. Difficult trial accounts and scary cultural myths still dominate the public perception of the mushroom and it is mostly due to these tales that research has been stalled for so long. Still, deaths have been associated with the unrestricted use of this substance, including a Ventura County teen who wandered into traffic in 2001 while intoxicated on mushrooms.
Research has continued unabated since the Hopkins study, however, with many more positive results. In 2006, the medical Journal of Neurology reported on cases in which mushrooms lessened cluster headaches better than common pharmaceuticals. This research was driven by psilocybins close chemical relationship with sumatriptan, the most common pharmaceutical treatment. The study was authored by psychiatrists at Harvard University's McLean Hospital, and the conclusion was that many of the 53 people who had been treating their headaches with psilocybin or LSD found that the drugs ended acute spasms of pain and extended the relief time in between attacks. According to the report: “Twenty-two of 26 psilocybin users reported that psilocybin aborted attacks; 25 of 48 psilocybin users ... reported cluster period termination; 18 of 19 psilocybin users ... reported remission period extension.” The case report concluded: "Research on the effects of psilocybin ... on cluster headaches may be warranted."
It turns out that the mushroom may have more profound uses than just limiting pain symptoms, however. The efficacy of this substance on matters of death and dying is currently being addressed. At the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center, a study began in 2007 that aims to test the so-called mystical effects of mushrooms on terminal cancer patients. The study aims to address the intense anxiety concerning illness and death experienced by these patients. 44 patients are expected and the study will reach completion in 2011, but the initial results are promising. Dr. Charles Grob, a professor of psychiatry at the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, described one woman's experience as life-changing. It reportedly allowed her a mental catharsis that enabled her to empathize with her husband and overcome her intense anguish and guilt over the burden she was placing on her family in her terminal condition. Once again, the common theme of “oneness” and connection catalyzed the result. "[The outcomes] were best with people who had what they described as a mystical experience, or a full-on, spiritual, transpersonal epiphany," Grob says.
Finally, in a move that legitimizes the current research trends, the FDA has, for the first time since the 60s, approved clinical trials for psilocybin treatment. This study addressed those suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorders (OCDs). Led by Dr. Francisco A. Moreno of the University of Arizona and published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, the preliminary results are astonishing. Nine patients were involved, and in each and every case, psilocybin use completely removed OCD symptoms, such as a fear of contamination, elaborate washing rituals, or obsessive tapping, for a period of four to 24 hours. Some claimed relief for several days. "What we saw acutely was a drastic decrease in symptoms," Moreno said. "The obsessions would really dissolve or reduce drastically for a period of time."
Currently, the modern status of psychedelic research is in a state of stabilization. John Hopkins Medical Society has released guidelines for undergoing similar clinical trials to their groundbreaking study and organizations such as the Beckley Foundation and MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) are soliciting funds from donors and organizations who believe in such research taking place. Similarly, the Heffter Institute, composed primarily of altruistic donors, has provided 1.4 million in funding. "Most donors are individuals who had [psychedelic] experiences of their own and became convinced that these substances were important to understand," says Dave Nichols of Purdue University.
Still, mushrooms have a long way to go before they find a legitimate place in our society. In the next instalment of our Magic Mushroom series, I will examine the current status of the mushroom in Canada, focusing on the legalities, and in particular, on a B.C. lawyer who is building a powerful Charter of Rights And Freedoms challenge on the grounds of free thought and religion. Keep reading.

Kevin Murray

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