The Scientists Who Revived Magic Mushroom Research

It's been more than a year since John Hayes, a professor of pastoral counseling at Loyola College, ingested psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms. He claims that the series of three eight-hour highs, administered—in a laboratory-turned-living room at Johns Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore—have made him a calmer, less fearful person. "It gave me this sense that space and time are human constructions that can collapse," says Hayes, 59. "The ultimate reality is something beyond those constructions, and more importantly, everything in the world is connected."

These are familiar sentiments to Roland Griffiths, the scientist who led a study of 36 volunteers, most of whom detailed similar experiences after taking the hallucinogenic compound. In a report published on July 1st in the Journal of Pharmacology, more than 60 percent of those intrepid volunteers reported substantial increases in life satisfaction a year after the experiment. "We have people saying these eight hours in the lab are among the most meaningful in their lives," says Griffiths. "Some rank it alongside births and deaths of loved ones." (Eleven volunteers experienced side effects such as fear or anxiety, only eight of them for a significant portion of the session.) Despite the long-held promise that such substances might reveal the secrets of the conscious mind, the study of hallucinogenic compounds has always been controversial. Once a thriving area of research, projects like these ground to a halt in the late 1960s when a media frenzy over rampant recreational use led the federal government to criminalize both psilocybin and LSD. There were reports of college students diving out of windows, staring at the sun until they went blind or developing schizophrenia after taking the drugs. While Griffiths insists many of these reports were pure myth, they scared scientists and administrators away.

For a time, it seemed that convincing America's premier research institutions to fund or sponsor research like this was nigh on impossible. In fact, the Journal of Pharmacology study represents one of the first yields of a 30-year effort to rebuild legitimate psychedelic research programs from the ashes of 1960s.

So how did Griffiths and his colleagues get the funding and approval to bring magic mushrooms and their pharmacological siblings back into mainstream labs? It's been a long strange trip. In fact, the story of how a small group of scientists worked for decades to revive scientific interest in psychedelic drugs and attract private donors to fill the funding gap left by a skeptical establishment is almost as fascinating as the research itself. Griffiths and Purdue pharmacologist Dave Nichols were just beginning their careers when the excesses of their forbears effectively shut down the field of psychedelic research in the early 1970s. "There's just a handful of us driving this, and we're sort of all in the time frame where we just caught the tail-end of the whole Haight-Ashbury period," says Nichols. "But we saw some amazing effects, and the interest never went away, even if the research did." Some of the most striking of those effects had been seen in the terminally ill, who often lost their fear of death and found comfort and peace from drugs such as psilocybin. "The hospice movement had yet to begin," says Nichols. "At the time we were just leaving terminal patients in a sterile corner of the hospital."

But with federal agencies reluctant to fund research into illegal substances and major universities unwilling to chance a 1960s-style meltdown (should the chemicals make their way from labs to dorm rooms), those early threads could not be pursued. So Nichols focused on the biochemistry of psychedelics, relying exclusively on animal models. And Griffiths went on to study the influence of other substances on behavior. Still, the questions that first sparked their curiosity—namely how a particular molecule could so profoundly influence one's perception of the world—lingered on. Until, that is, Nichols and his colleagues rose to a level of prominence that they could leverage to probe their still-controversial interest in these substances.

"I had been saying for decades that you could still do the research if you had private funding," says Nichols. "Finally I realized if I waited any longer, I'd be retired and I'd really regret not having done anything with it."

So in the early 1990s, he called several of his colleagues, including Charles Grob, who had studied the religious use of another psychedelic substance, ayahuasca, by religious communities in Brazil. By then, the stigma had begun to evaporate a bit. Nichols's idea was to raise funds to support investigators at reputable institutions, so that the work would be invested with some legitimacy from the outset.  Before long, the nonprofit Heffter Research Institute was born. Since incorporating in 1993, Hefter has funded around $1.4 million worth of studies.

The bulk of that money has come from a small group of donors, many of whom are former flower children themselves. For example, Bob Wallace, the ninth Microsoft employee, donated nearly $700,000 over a six-year period. "Most donors are individuals who had [psychedelic] experiences of their own and became convinced that these substances were important to understand," says Nichols.

In addition to Heffter, two other nonprofits—the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) and the Beckley Foundation—have gone where traditional academic funding sources were reluctant to venture. Among MAPS donors are the Pritzker family, owners of the Hyatt hotel chain, and Peter Lewis, former CEO of Progressive Auto Insurance.

Around the same time that Nichols was forming Heffter, Curtis Wright, a former FDA administrator, was digging through files on psychedelic research at the Food and Drug Administration. For three decades, research proposals had been collecting dust there. Led by Wright, a group tasked with speeding up the drug development process reviewed the old proposals and determined there was no scientific justification for blocking some of them. "This is one case where the FDA put science before politics," says MAPS founder Richard Doblin, who did his Ph.D. on FDA regulation of psychedelic research.

But the FDA's decision to approve the investigation of some psychedelic compounds was made 15 years ago. Only recently have major universities followed the agency's lead. "In many cases, the university review boards are more difficult to get through than the federal ones," says Griffiths. "So their approval represents a huge sea change."

Given the troubled history of psychedelic research in the U.S.—Timothy Leary was, after all, a Harvard scientist before he became the godfather of recreational LSD use—most of Griffiths' colleagues prefer to work beneath the radar. Even as they told NEWSWEEK of a recently approved LSD study at University of California at Berkeley, several scientists declined to give specifics. "They are still waiting for the FDA to grant final approval of the actual chemicals, which are being imported from Switzerland," explains Doblin. "The wrong kind of attention could cause some administrator to come in and shut the project down." If that happened, years of paperwork and gentle prodding would be laid to waste.

To thwart criticism about the legitimacy of the work, psychedelic researchers have focused on developing sound protocols. Unlike earlier research, the current studies are double-blind with a control group—two staples of sound science that guard against researcher bias in the interpretation of results.

And along with his latest study, Griffith has published a series of guidelines intended to protect volunteers and ensure the integrity of data. Those guidelines describe how to eliminate subjects with a family history of mental illness and advise that the clinician administering the substance take a full day to establish rapport with a given volunteer so that they can guide them through any difficult moments the experience might cause.

It's a far cry from the Leary era, which was plagued by too much media hype and not enough scientific rigor, but the approach is starting to pay off. As Harvard, Johns Hopkins, UCLA and others open their doors to psilocybin, LSD and MDMA (Ecstasy), scientists there are beginning to examine the therapeutic value of these long-maligned molecules. Already, Psilocybin and MDMA have shown promise in treating a range of conditions, including Obsessive Compulsive Spectrum Disorders (OCSD), anxiety in terminally ill cancer patients, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Harvard scientists are at work on a protocol to study the benefits of LSD in treating cluster headaches—a project that began when an online community of patients who were self-medicating with the drug contacted researchers.

To be sure, these early trials are small, consisting of fewer than two dozen patients each. Larger-scale investigations will require more funding and wider acceptance, but proponents are optimistic. "I think a lot of basic scientists will start to migrate back to this type of work," says Nichols. "We'll start to see some real progress if we don't burn any bridges and we keep ourselves squeaky clean."

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