Docs Tuning in to Hallucinogens Again
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13 April 2010
By John Tierney
Scientists Making Headway In Using Drugs For Treating Mental Problems & Illuminating Consciousness
As a retired clinical psychologist, Clark Martin was well acquainted with traditional treatments for depression, but his own case seemed untreatable as he struggled through chemotherapy and other gruelling regimens for kidney cancer. Counselling seemed futile to him. So did the antidepressant pills he tried.
Nothing had any lasting effect until, at the age of 65, he had his first psychedelic experience. He left his home in Vancouver, Washington, to take part in an experiment at Johns Hopkins medical school involving psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient found in certain mushrooms.
Scientists are taking a new look at hallucinogens, which became taboo among regulators after enthusiasts like Timothy Leary promoted them in the 1960s with the slogan “Turn on, tune in, drop out”. Now, using rigorous protocols and safeguards, scientists have won permission to study once again the drugs’ potential for treating mental problems and illuminating the nature of consciousness.
After taking the hallucinogen, Martin put on an eye mask and headphones, and lay on a couch listening to classical music as he contemplated the universe. “All of a sudden, everything familiar started evaporating,” he recalled. “Imagine you fall off a boat out in the open ocean, and you turn around, and the boat is gone. And then the water’s gone. And then you’re gone.”
Today, more than a year later, Martin credits that six–hour experience with helping him overcome his depression and profoundly transforming his relationships with his daughter and friends. He ranks it among the most meaningful events of his life, which makes him a fairly typical member of a growing club of experimental subjects.
Researchers from around the world are gathering this week in San Jose, California, for the largest conference on psychedelic science held in the United States in four decades. They plan to discuss studies of psilocybin and other psychedelics for treating depression in cancer patients, obsessive–compulsive disorder, end–of–life anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder and addiction to drugs or alcohol.
The results so far are encouraging but also preliminary, and researchers caution against reading too much into these small–scale studies. They do not want to repeat the mistakes of the 1960s, when some scientiststurned–evangelists exaggerated their understanding of the drugs’ risks and benefits.
Scientists are especially intrigued by the similarities between hallucinogenic experiences and the life–changing revelations reported throughout history by religious mystics and those who meditate. These similarities have been identified in neural imaging studies conducted by Swiss researchers and in experiments led by Roland Griffiths, a professor of behavioral biology at Johns Hopkins.
In one of Griffiths’s first studies, involving 36 people with no serious physical or emotional problems, he and colleagues found that psilocybin could induce what the experimental subjects described as a profound spiritual experience with lasting positive effects for most of them.
To make the experiment double–blind, neither the subjects nor the two experts monitoring them knew whether the subjects were receiving a placebo, psilocybin or another drug. In a survey conducted two months later, the people who received psilocybin reported significantly more improvements in their general feelings and behaviour than did the members of the control group.
In interviews, Martin and other subjects described their egos and bodies vanishing as they felt part of some larger state of consciousness in which their personal worries and insecurities vanished. They found themselves reviewing past relationships with lovers and relatives with a new sense of empathy.