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.

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