BALTIMORE (WJZ) -- Researchers at Johns Hopkins University have been studying the hallucinogenic drug psilocybin to see if it can help with depression, anxiety, addiction and other conditions. Now, the university has launched a global survey of the thousands of people who are using the drug outside of a controlled environment to learn more about the positive and negative effects.
Heather Jackson used psilocybin in a controlled setting to help her recover from years of emotional trauma.
"It was an extremely profound experience and provided a lot of healing for me," she said.
WJZ's Denise Koch: "Was it an ego-dissolving, colorful transformative experience?"
Heather Jackson: "Yeah, you've described it very well."
Jackson is the president of the nonprofit Unlimited Sciences. Her son, Zaki, was born with a seizure disorder and was near death at age nine when Jackson said he was given cannabis and went into remission.
Zaki is now 17 and not on any pharmaceuticals. Jackson is committed to learning more about natural solutions, so in August Unlimited Sciences and Johns Hopkins' Behavioral Biology Research Center launched the global survey asking psilocybin users to share their experiences.
So far, more than 2,400 people have taken part.
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"On average, the people who did fill out the survey said that they had about 15 uses of psilocybin in their lifetime," said Dr. Albert Garcia-Romeu with the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research.
Psilocybin is a naturally-occurring compound found in more than 200 species of mushrooms. It and other hallucinogenic drugs target the brain's serotonin 2a receptors, setting off a cascade of activity.
In a clinical setting, everything is controlled. Guides stay with users for the up to eight hours the drug is taking effect.
"We kind of help them through the difficult experience," Garcia-Romeu explained.
But those Hopkins hopes to reach with the survey use psilocybin recreationally.
As one respondent wrote, "My intention is to better understand how I can help the world be productive and relieve day-to-day anxiety."
One-third of respondents said they suffer from an anxiety disorder, while one-fourth have a mood disorder. One-third do not have any mental health conditions.
Denise Koch: Were [patients] helped by the drug?
Dr. Garcia-Romeu: "We're seeing improvements in stuff like quality of life, social functioning... similarly, we're seeing things like anxiety, depression or burnout drop after these experiences."
Images show the differences in the brain from using psilocybin.
"There's far more connectivity on the right (after using psilocybin). This increase in connectivity may allow for a brief period of elasticity," Garcia-Romeu explained.
That elasticity can take the mind to unexpected places and change the person who takes the "trip."
"About 35% of people said that they are doing this for purposes of self-exploration," Garcia-Romeu said.
Participants are surveyed before and after taking psilocybin, with a follow-up survey happening two months later. One person reported an "emotional dam broke during my session."
"When it was over, I felt [an] emotional vulnerability that soon gave way to calm and peace. This was possibly the most therapeutic session that I ever had," Garcia-Romeu said, describing the patient's experience.
Johns Hopkins does not advocate taking psilocybin or any other drug.
A few participants have had difficulties.
"We found that about 13 people have sought medical or psychological treatment because of their use," Garcia-Romeu said.
But with, Garcia-Romeu believes, millions of people already experimenting with psilocybin, scientists want to add to their knowledge of the ancient drug and learn more about the positive and negative effects of what are often called magic mushrooms.
The study will continue for another year or so. Those aged 18 or older who speak English and would like to participate can learn more from Unlimited Sciences and the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research.
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