Do "magic" mushrooms have medicinal value?

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

(CBS) Psychedelic mushrooms have long been linked with lava lamps, Volkswagen vans, and an irrational fondness for tie-dye. But scientists at Johns Hopkins University say we shouldn't sell 'shrooming short.

A new study shows that psilocybin, the active agent in certain mushrooms, can be a potent tool for boosting positive feelings over time - especially when used in the right dosage.

The study, published in the journal Psychopharmacology, tested the reactions of 18 volunteers, each treated in five 8-hour sessions with four different doses of psilocybin and one placebo.

Fourteen months after the sessions, 83% of the volunteers given the higher doses of psilocybin said they felt greater well-being, and 89% reported improvements in their behavior. Ninety-four percent of the volunteers ranked the experience as one of the most "spiritually significant" in their lives.

How many felt worse after dosing on the mushrooms? Not one.

That was partly the result of the experiment's design, said lead scientist Dr. Roland Griffiths, professor of psychiatry at the university. Before they were allowed to participate in the study, volunteers were screened for physical and emotional problems and were supervised during the mushroom sessions to make sure they didn't get too anxious.

Does the finding suggest that 'shrooms are something people should groove on all by themselves?

"There's a very real risk to using psilocybin in a haphazard and recreational setting," Griffiths told CBS News, noting reports of panicked mushroom-users who have run out into traffic or jumped off cliffs. In this follow-up to a study he conducted in 2006, his team examined how much anxiety each dose produced, relative to its positive impact. "We know very clearly that there's a sweet spot" where negative effects are minimized, he said.

While hallucinogenic mushrooms are illegal in the U.S., Griffiths hopes his research could help persuade the FDA to legalize psilocybin for therapeutic use. He is now studying the compound as a psychological support for cancer patients and as an aid to smoking cessation.

Richard Boothby, 57, a philosophy professor at Loyola University, volunteered for the current study. He had never tried hallucinogenic drugs, he said, and was skeptical of their potential to prompt spiritual growth.

His first session on psilocybin changed his mind. "It's like diving into water where you enter and go deep, so deep in fact that you feel like you'll never come back to the surface," he told CBS News. In the midst of that depth, he said, he found "unbelievable clarity."

Boothby said the sessions helped him cope with the earlier suicide of his son, and gave him a greater openness toward the people he encounters.

"It was a truly unforgettable and transforming experience," he said. "I would do it again in a heartbeat."