In 2002, at a Johns Hopkins University laboratory, a business consultant named Dede Osborn took a psychedelic drug as part of a research project.
She felt like she was taking off. She saw colors. Then it felt like her heart was ripping open.
But she called the experience joyful as well as painful, and says that it has helped her to this day.
"I feel more centered in who I am and what I'm doing," said Osborn, now 66, of Providence, R.I. "I don't seem to have those self-doubts like I used to have. I feel much more grounded (and feel that) we are all connected."
Scientists reported Tuesday that when they surveyed volunteers 14 months after they took the drug, most said they were still feeling and behaving better because of the experience.
Two-thirds of them also said the drug had produced one of the five most spiritually significant experiences they'd ever had.
The drug, psilocybin, is found in so-called "magic mushrooms." It's illegal, but it has been used in religious ceremonies for centuries.
The study involved 36 men and women during an eight-hour lab visit. It's one of the few such studies of a hallucinogen in the past 40 years, since research was largely shut down after widespread recreational abuse of such drugs in the 1960s.
The project made headlines in 2006 when researchers published their report on how the volunteers felt just two months after taking the drug. The new study followed them up a year after that.
Experts emphasize that people should not try psilocybin on their own because it could be harmful. Even in the controlled setting of the laboratory, nearly a third of participants felt significant fear under the effects of the drug. Without proper supervision, someone could be harmed, researchers said.
Osborn, in a telephone interview, recalled a powerful feeling of being out of control during her lab experience. "It was ... like taking off, I'm being lifted up," she said. Then came "brilliant colors and beautiful patterns, just stunningly gorgeous, more intense than normal reality."
And then, the sensation that her heart was tearing open.
"It would come in waves," she recalled. "I found myself doing Lamaze-type breathing as the pain came on."
Yet "it was a joyful, ecstatic thing at the same time, like the joy of being alive," she said. She compared it to birthing pains. "There was this sense of relief and joy and ecstasy when my heart was opened."
With further research, psilocybin (pronounced SILL-oh-SY-bin) may prove useful in helping to treat alcoholism and drug dependence, and in aiding seriously ill patients as they deal with psychological distress, said study lead author Roland Griffiths of Johns Hopkins.
Griffiths also said that despite the spiritual characteristics reported for the drug experiences, the study says nothing about whether God exists.
"Is this God in a pill? Absolutely not," he said.
The experiment was funded in part by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The results were published online Tuesday by the Journal of Psychopharmacology.
Fourteen months after taking the drug, 64 percent of the volunteers said they still felt at least a moderate increase in well-being or life satisfaction, in terms of things like feeling more creative, self-confident, flexible and optimistic. And 61 percent reported at least a moderate behavior change in what they considered positive ways.
That second question didn't ask for details, but elsewhere the questionnaire answers indicated lasting gains in traits like being more sensitive, tolerant, loving and compassionate.
Researchers didn't try to corroborate what the participants said about their own behavior. But in the earlier analysis at two months after the drug was given, researchers said family and friends backed up what those in the study said about behavior changes. Griffiths said he has no reason to doubt the answers at 14 months.
Dr. Charles Grob, a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, called the new work an important follow-up to the first study.
He said it is helping to reopen formal study of psychedelic drugs. Grob is on the board of the Heffter Research Institute, which promotes studies of psychedelic substances and helped pay for the new work.