Health & Wellbeing

Johns Hopkins study finds Psilocybin dosage 'sweet spot' for positive and lasting effects

Johns Hopkins study finds Psilocybin dosage 'sweet spot' for positive and lasting effects
A Phrygian cap, also known as the 'liberty cap' - one of over 200 species of fungi producing Psilocybin (Photo: CC)
A Phrygian cap, also known as the 'liberty cap' - one of over 200 species of fungi producing Psilocybin (Photo: CC)
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A Phrygian cap, also known as the 'liberty cap' - one of over 200 species of fungi producing Psilocybin (Photo: CC)
A Phrygian cap, also known as the 'liberty cap' - one of over 200 species of fungi producing Psilocybin (Photo: CC)
Nibbling on one side of a psychoactive Fly Agaric mushroom caused Alice to grow while the other side made her shrink
Nibbling on one side of a psychoactive Fly Agaric mushroom caused Alice to grow while the other side made her shrink
The hallucinogenic, often spiritual, influence of Psilocybin has long been well known (Photo: CC)
The hallucinogenic, often spiritual, influence of Psilocybin has long been well known (Photo: CC)
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The use of mushrooms by man for practical, culinary or recreational purposes is said to date back to at least Paleolithic times, with perhaps the best-known variety in recent times being Amanita muscaria or Fly Agaric. Nibbling on one side of this fungus made Alice grow in size and the other made her shrink, leading to some rather bizarre adventures and inspiring one of my favorite songs - White Rabbit by Jefferson Airplane. The favored psychoactive mushrooms of the drop-out 1960s, though, were members of the Psilocybe genus. Researchers now believe that they have found the optimum dose of the pure chemical found in those so-called magic mushrooms, a level which offers maximum therapeutic value with little risk of having a bad trip.

Psilocybin is produced by over 200 species of fungi and its hallucinogenic, often spiritual, influence has long been well known. It's said to lead to a feeling of oneness with nature and the universe, of a great inner peace and calm. But, as if proof of the old adage, too much of this good thing can also result in powerful negative episodes marked by fear and anxiety, and has led to strict regulation or outright prohibition in many countries throughout the world.

The latest Psilocybin study at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine set out to discover the "sweet spot" dose of pure chemical Psilocybin that would offer users all the positive benefits while minimizing the negative effects. Researchers screened volunteers between the ages of 29 and 62, ensuring that they were of sound mind and body (as the saying goes), and chose 18 to undergo five sessions lasting eight hours each and timed a month apart. At four of these, the volunteers would receive varying doses of the chemical and a placebo (no drug) at the remaining session.

Lie back and look inward

In common with other studies at Hopkins, volunteers in this one were settled into a comfy couch in an aesthetically-pleasing, living-room-like environment during each session and were accompanied by trained monitors. The subjects were encouraged to lie back and relax, with mood-complementing classical and world music being played through headphones. Neither the volunteers or the monitors knew beforehand how much Psilocybin they were to receive at each session but subjects were given preparatory guidance and coaching.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, researchers noted that the reported positive effects increased as higher doses were given, but also that there was a sharp increase in the negative aspects at the very highest dose. At the highest dose (30 mg/70 kg, p.o. - meaning "per oral" or by mouth), 78 percent of the volunteers were reporting one of the top five most spiritually significant happenings of their lives but those suffering anxiety, stress and fear episodes increased by six times, so that around a third of those participating in the study showed signs of psychological struggle.

By contrast, only one of the volunteers receiving the second highest dose (20mg/70 kg, p.o.) reported having negative issues, and all benefited from positive experiences, although with less intensity than at the highest dose. Critically, even the lowest amount used in the study resulted in notable and long-lasting positive changes in the attitudes, behavior, overall satisfaction and spiritual beliefs of the subjects during the period of study. These changes were also noticed by family members and friends.

"We seem to have found levels of the substance and particular conditions for its use that give a high probability of a profound and beneficial experience, a low enough probability of psychological struggle, and very little risk of any actual harm," says lead author of the study, Roland Griffiths, Ph.D.

Those who received a small taster before a higher dose were observed as being even more likely to reap the benefits than those who were only given the higher dose.

A month after the conclusion of the study, 61 percent rated the experience as being the single most important spiritual experience of their lives and 14 months later, 94 percent of the volunteers rated it in their top five.

Early days, more to come

The research team says that this dose-effect study reinforces previous work which shows that, under well-designed, strictly controlled conditions, Psilocybin "has a high probability of leading to mystical or spiritual experiences descriptively identical to spontaneous ones mystics have reported across cultures and throughout the ages, while not leading to drug abuse or organ toxicity."

It is hoped that the results will help pave the way for research into the therapeutic use of Psilocybin, and Griffiths is now calling for cancer suffering volunteers to get involved with the next phase of his Psilocybin research - to find out if the substance can help reduce fear and anxiety in cancer patients.

Elsewhere, Johns Hopkins studies are looking into whether it can be used to help smokers to quit. There's also research into the specific exploration of Psilocybin's spiritual effect and to that end, practices like meditation, awareness training and spiritual dialogue are being used alongside doses of the pure chemical. All told, the combination of all the Psilocybin work at Hopkins has seen over 100 volunteers being walked through over 210 sessions.

It remains to be seen whether this new batch of research into the use of hallucinogens suffers from the kind of bad press and knee-jerk hysteria which brought an end to promising research into the therapeutic use of psychedelics over 40 years ago, but early indications are good. Former White House Drug Czar Jerome Jaffe, M.D. has said that "the Hopkins Psilocybin studies clearly demonstrate that this route to the mystical is not to be walked alone, but they have also demonstrated significant and lasting benefits."

The study entitled Psilocybin occasioned mystical-type experiences: immediate and persisting dose-related effects by Roland R. Griffiths, Matthew W. Johnson, William A. Richards, Brian D. Richards, Una McCann and Robert Jesse has now been published in Psychopharmacology magazine.

Source: Council on Spiritual Practices

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Mr Stiffy
2 words. John Allergo.
Dead Sea Scrolls The myth of Jesus - is based upon shamanic rituals with Amanita Muscaria. (psychotropic mushroom) "As a philologist, Allegro analysed the derivations of language. He traced biblical words and phrases back to their roots in Sumerian, and showed how Sumerian phonemes recur in varying but related contexts in many Semitic, classical and other Indo-European languages. Although meanings changed to some extent, Allegro found some basic religious ideas passing on through the genealogy of words. His book The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross relates the development of language on our continent to the development of myths, religions and cultic practices in many cultures. Allegro believed he could prove through etymology that the roots of Christianity, as of many other religions, lay in fertility cults; and that cultic practices, such as ingesting hallucinogenic drugs to perceive the mind of god, persisted into Christian times."
The Pharmacratic Inquisition - entire online version
Renārs Grebežs
I think that higher doses require mature personality and understanding that the hallucinogens \'open\' the best and the worst in people. So this study, imho, is unnecessary.
They should test Ayahuasca and Amanita Muscaria - those are harder to prepare in proper dosages and easier to get bad results with.
It would be interesting to me (haven\'t read the published article yet) to know the spiritual bent of the subjects before and after the trials. Were there any athiets, for example? If so, how did their experiences differ? Additionally, psychedelics increase perceptual ability to the point of overload. The results are \"symptoms\" (for want of a better term) like moving patterns where only static patterns exist. Could \'tweaking\' the environment in a study such as this affect the outcome in a specifically repeatable way? Using psychedelics with meditation seems like a difficult thing to do, given the amount of input and general lack of focus associated with them. If they work for curbing smoking, can a mushroom-based weight loss plan be far behind? Hey - sign me up!
Terry Penrose
I enjoyed everyones comments, nice to see a positive response to this subject in general and yes KMH, perhaps a larger study and knowledge of prior religious beliefs would also be very useful. Thanks to Mr.Stiffy for the link to Allegro\'s \"The Pharmacratic Inquisition\" I\'m sure it will be thought provoking. Peace.
High, everybody. I just had a thought: Was the Beatles song, Day Tripper, anything to do with drug taking? It never occurred to me until now. Could we now be expecting Psilocybin tablets to come onto the market? I don\'t indulge in any of this stuff, by the way.
Thomas Aquino
I\'m glad we\'re getting back to basics. I just thought I\'d add a little about a couple of men from the past who help put us where we are now.
Having written a book on mysticism, \'The Perrenial Philosophy\", Aldous Huxley was keen on the idea that you might be able to eat your way to mysticism. He wrote at least three books about it. A couple of these books were autobiographical: \"Heaven and Hell\", \"The Doors of Perception\". His last book, \"Island\", was about what it might have been like, if an island of people in the Pacific, having had a cultural history of ingesting sacred mushrooms that they had passed down unbroken for centuries, were confronted by modern day western political and fundament religious thoughts and actions.
Timothy Leary, PhD. had written about the possiblity of personality change. He wanted to change people for the good. A nice \"Clock Work Orange\" kind of professor. When in Mexico he ate a psylocibin mushroom he thought he had found a most effective tool to accomplish personality change for the better. He was overwhelmed by the possibilities and wanted eveyone to have it too.
Aldous Huxley said Leary was a show off and his attitude about drug use would not lead to anything good. Huxly thought that only national leaders should have access to such experiences and like the Philosopher Kings of Socrates\' \"Republic\" would rule the world with reason and a higher perspective.
Ralf Biernacki
What I completely fail to understand is how anyone in his right mind could have found this test a "spiritual" event. I do not deny that it must have been a very intense or singular /emotional experience; or that it may have had a lasting positive psychological effect. But using the word "spiritual" here is a confusion of terminology.
I can have a spiritual "experience" when, for instance, I discover through introspection that my motives for acting as I did were questionable and I resolve to amend my goals. Or I can have a spiritual experience when I discover than the deep beliefs of a culturally alien person are in fact closer to mine than I expected; or conversely, that they are vastly more alien than I thought. But such experiences are utterly unrelated to such neurochemically induced emotional swings as are described in this article.
In conclusion, I believe that any "spiritual" experiences here are simply due to the researchers formulating their questionnaires in inappropriate terminology, which regretfully detracts from the value of this otherwise interesting research.
If I want to have a spiritual experience I drink lots of spirits. If I want to get off my face on psilocybin I join the Native American Church. I would like more insight into JHU's test methods before commenting on this report because there are some challenges to be overcome before this can be called objective. The admission that subjects were given "preparatory guidance and coaching" does not give me much hope that any such objectivity existed during the test.
Freederick, It is a good point you make that people need to be more discerning between what is a spiritual experience and what is simply a mind-bending new experience. As you described, what make for truly spiritual experiences are times we allow ourselves to be open to an idea (or a person) that changes the meaning of our actions and perhaps our life. However, I do not believe the research is flawed in citing 'spiritual' experiences to come from psilocybin. As a substance that opens people's minds and senses in such a drastic way, it would only be natural that they have significant realizations about reality and perception. It makes them realize things can be so different than what they thought. It forces the mind to be open and consider the forces beyond that of our physical senses. Spirituality is ever present in humans and does not go away when one takes mushrooms.
Maverick Mancunian
I did 150 liberty caps one evening in 1986. It changed the path of my life. I was 18 at the time. I panicked. I imagine people might experience similar levels of fear in certain combat situations. I think my body certainly released every drop of adrenaline it had in one go. I was diagnosed schizophrenic in 1992, but along the way it was changed to bipolar disorder type 1. I started my life again from zero after my first consequential nervous breakdown in my mid 20s. I eventually triumphed. I don't call myself Maverick Mancunian for nothing.