Psilocybe, or more commonly known as “magic mushrooms,” has been used for hundreds of years for its psilocybin, a component that can affect the psychoactivity of the brain. 

However, for decades, the compound has been banned from research, hindering most scientists from exploring its capabilities further… until now. 

Studies and Research Using “Magic Mushrooms”

Roland Griffiths, Ph.D., is a Professor in the Departments of Psychiatry and Neurosciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. For the past 40 years, he’s been researching and developing medication that can alter a person’s mood. About two decades ago, he found out about a meditation practice that changed his perspective on spiritual experience. 

Since then, in his quest for answers, he discovered that hallucinogens such as psilocybin can induce mystical effects that can be positive and beneficial when it comes to a person’s emotional state, behavior, and attitude – in the right environment. He also hypothesized that psilocybin may have implications when it comes to exploring human consciousness. 

After years of fighting for the legal right to study the effects of psilocybin on volunteers, Griffiths and other proponents of the research finally gained approval to begin the Center For Psychedelic and Consciousness Research at Johns Hopkins University.

The John Hopkins Psilocybin Research Project

For the research project, Griffiths and his colleagues gathered 245 volunteers. The group was comprised of healthy volunteers, long-term meditators, smokers seeking abstinence and psychologically distressed cancer patients. 

Researchers administered the psilocybin in capsule form over several sessions, with the purpose of establishing a trusting relationship with the patients and reducing any adverse effects.

Patients were observed in a living-room-like environment and asked to lay down on a couch with an eye mask. They were given headphones so they could listen to music that was specifically selected to direct their attention inward. 

A high dosage of psilocybin under these conditions can produce hallucinations that can alter a person’s visual perception. There can also be a drastic change in emotions, ranging from a feeling of intense joy to fear. Sometimes cognitive changes also manifest. In cases where the volunteer would experience anxiety and fear, there were monitors present whose job it was to reassure them.

Effects of Psilocybin on Healthy People

According to Griffiths, the most exciting thing that their research has produced is the patients’ responses to the questions that are meant to be spiritual and mystical. These experiences felt in the most basic sense are the feelings of unity, love, and connection with other people.

The effects of psilocybin are only short-term, however, the vividness of the hallucinations can affect people for a long time. 

After taking high doses of psilocybin, around 80% of the patients who came back to answer the questionnaires ranked the experience among their top five most meaningful and spiritually significant experiences in their lives, and 50% of those listed it as their first. 

The volunteers also noted that the positive effects and feelings they experienced during the experiment lasted for at least a year and even longer in some cases. Friends and families of these patients also reported increased positive attitudes in the patients, which only served to confirm the volunteers’ reports.

Effects of Psilocybin on the Emotionally Distressed

The preliminary results were also promising for the psychologically-distressed cancer patients, who received the same treatment as the healthy volunteers. The results presented a clinically significant improvement in the depressed mood of the patients that took in a high dosage of psilocybin in the first five weeks of the study. These results were sustained for up to six months.

Cognitive behavior therapy was integrated into the sessions for smokers who were looking to quit. Overall, the sessions were helpful. After five weeks, the patients’ levels of urinary cotinine reached an observable decrease (cotinine is a chemical your body makes after you are exposed to nicotine). Six months after the study ended, 80% of the volunteers had quit smoking.

Preliminary data showed how the long-term meditators reported beneficial effects, although none of them claimed that psilocybin could serve as a substitute for meditation.

Implications of Psilocybin Research:  “Magic Mushrooms” for Therapy?

Long ago, humans decided that science and spirituality don’t go well together. However, Griffiths begs to differ, pointing out that Albert Einstein believed that the most beautiful thing to experience is that of the mystical – and that the mystical is the source of all sciences known to man.

What’s fascinating about this research is that science can be used to point out how people can experience these effects; how their neural brain mechanisms work during this process; and how genes, personality, and the environment can impact the effects of psilocybin.

Hopefully, with the results from Griffiths’ study, large-scale clinical trials will be approved to determine if psilocybin can be helpful in the treatment of cancer, addiction, and other psychiatric disorders.