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Far out. A volunteer listens to classical music through headphones while participating in an experiment with psilocybin.

Roland Griffiths

A Very Memorable Trip

More than a year after taking a hallucinogenic drug in a carefully controlled experiment, most people rate the experience among the most personally meaningful and spiritually significant of their lives, researchers report online today in the Journal of Psychopharmacology. Such findings are helping to renew interest in research with hallucinogens, a field whose reputation long suffered from the psychedelic excesses of the 1960s.

The new study follows up with 36 volunteers who participated in earlier experiments led by psychopharmacologist Roland Griffiths of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. The researchers monitored the mostly middle-aged subjects while they took a strong dose of psilocybin, the active ingredient in hallucinogenic mushrooms. All of the volunteers had indicated at least some participation in religious or spiritual activities--such as meditating or going to church--and the researchers instructed them to direct their attention inward while under the drug's sway. None had previous experience with hallucinogens. On questionnaires completed after the drug had worn off, and again 2 months later, they rated the experience as highly significant, the researchers reported in a 2006 paper in Psychopharmacology. Volunteers frequently described a sense of greater truth or a sense of the unity of all things while on the drug, for example.

The experience remained highly significant to most of the volunteers 14 months later, the researchers now report: 58% rated it among the five most personally meaningful experiences of their lives and 67% rated it among the five most spiritually significant. And 64% said the experience had improved their sense of well-being or life satisfaction. It's remarkable, Griffiths says, that people continued to rate their 8-hour experience in the lab as similar in significance to life events such as the birth of a first child.

The findings suggest to Griffiths that hallucinogenic drugs may provide a way to investigate the neurobiology of religious experiences by evoking in the lab the kinds of mystical experiences traditionally achieved by prayer, meditation, or fasting. Would the drug have the same effect on a group of atheist or agnostic subjects? "We're dying to do that study," he says.

In the meantime, Griffiths's team is recruiting volunteers for a clinical trial to test whether similar psilocybin experiences can reduce anxiety and depression in cancer patients. A few studies in the late 1960s and early 1970s suggested that the hallucinogen LSD might ease suffering in terminal cancer patients, but that line of investigation was dropped and largely forgotten, says David Nichols, a psychopharmacologist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. Although such patients often receive heavy doses of pain drugs along with antidepressants and anxiety drugs, Nichols says hallucinogens might provide a better alternative. "If you could change their perception of death and reduce their stress in that way, it would improve their quality of life because their consciousness wouldn't be dulled by sedatives or narcotics," he says.