The recent survey of difficult recreational psilocybin experiences by Heffter Board member and researcher Roland Griffiths, Ph.D. and his team at Johns Hopkins University draws two main conclusions that at first may seem contradictory. On one hand, psilocybin use outside the medical setting occasionally involves traumatic and potentially harmful experiences, as well as occasionally dangerous behaviors. On the other hand, most people report improvements in their quality of life after these difficult experiences.
The medical research setting provides crucial protections from harm that the recreational setting does not: a psychiatric evaluation to exclude subjects with a history of a serious mental disorder that could recur with psilocybin. Another key protection is the presence of specially trained psychotherapists with experience administering psilocybin to support subjects through distressing and confusing experiences, which can happen to anyone in any setting. Finally, the medical research setting provides hours of both pre-session preparation and post-session integration psychotherapy sessions to help the subject maximize the benefit from the session and ensure the positive impacts are enduring.
The relative lack of protections afforded by the recreational setting is apparent in the data. The survey of recreational users found that 24% reported psychological symptoms after their difficult experience, some of which included risky or violent behavior, the need for medical help, and suicide attempts. By comparison, less than 1% of Hopkins medical research subjects experienced enduring psychological symptoms, and no medical research subjects participated in dangerous behavior.
The association of difficult life experiences resulting in personal benefit is well-known and almost goes without saying. Hard work, athletic training, and education are often difficult and yet are widely understood to be effective in helping people improve their lives. But because difficult psilocybin experiences are a rare and different kind of phenomenon in our culture, we don’t associate them with the “no pain, no gain” concept that we are used to hearing about more common life struggles. These survey data appear to confirm that learning from difficulty applies to intense inner experience as well as to the more common difficulties in everyday life.
The findings from this Heffter-funded study also confirm the need to place safety first. Psilocybin is a powerful medicine and it is Heffter’s position that the positive effects found in research to date are most reliably achieved when psilocybin is administered by a doctor with special training and used in a therapeutic setting. Safety has not been demonstrated for psilocybin when used outside of a clinical or laboratory setting, and we caution against recreational use of psilocybin because of potential adverse psychological reactions.
Legendary food writer Michael Pollan explains his interest in psychedelic plants in this podcast interview. Pollan discusses the re-emergence of psilocybin-assisted therapy research after long being suppressed.
Here’s a video from The Atlantic Montlhy about the study at Johns Hopkins using psilocybin for treating long-term smokers.
Psilocybin may help smokers quit the habit by giving them a mystical experience, according to an article in The Atlantic Monthly. In a Heffter-supported study at Johns Hopkins University, 12 of 15 subjects quit smoking after three sessions with the psychedelic substance. Lead researcher Dr. Matthew Johnson suggests that psychedelics may help smokers overcome addiction by changing their self image. “’People will recognize this profound self-worth that they’ve dismissed,’ he said. ‘They look at their life and see themselves as a miracle.’”
Please join Heffter Research Institute President and co-founder David Nichols for his presentation “Nearly Half a Century Studying Psychedelics,” an overview of his pioneering career in the field of psychedelic research. Dr. Nichols will appear at 7:00 PM on Saturday, April 30th, at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco.
“Beginning with his graduate studies in 1969, Dr. David Nichols began research on drug molecules known then as ‘psychotomimetics.’ This talk will roughly chronicle his journey from 1969 until the present, presenting advances in the evolution of thinking about these drugs, now popularly called psychedelics.”
A team of researchers at Imperial College London produced the first images of the human brain under the influence of LSD. According to ScienceDaily, 20 healthy volunteers received 75 micrograms of LSD. The research team, led by Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris, used advanced imaging technology to study how the psychedelic substance acts in the brain. Carhart-Harris says the study advances our understanding of the complex visual and psychological effects of psychedelics.
“Professor David Nutt, the senior researcher on the study and Edmond J Safra Chair in Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial, said: ‘Scientists have waited 50 years for this moment — the revealing of how LSD alters our brain biology. For the first time we can really see what’s happening in the brain during the psychedelic state, and can better understand why LSD had such a profound impact on self-awareness in users and on music and art. This could have great implications for psychiatry, and helping patients overcome conditions such as depression.’”
A recent article in OUPblog, the online source for news and commentary from the Oxford University Press, covers changing attitudes towards psychedelics. In “Finding a New Perspective on Psychedelics,” editor Matt Turney notes that “The reputation of these compounds is undergoing rehabilitation, but we can’t know how long it will take to shrug off the weight of the mischaracterizations that have been heaped on them for years.” Turney mentions the work of Heffter researchers Anthony Bossis, Roland Griffiths, and Michael Bogenschutz.
“Psychedelic inquiry hasn’t yet gone mainstream, but it is no longer restricted to the fringes of the research community. Oxford University Press’s own JNCI: The Journal of the National Cancer Institute published an editorial in 2012 recognizing a number of early-stage psychedelic studies, such as the NYU cancer study, that show promise. More recently, UK-based medical journal The Lancet encouraged readers to “turn on and tune in to evidence-based psychedelic research.” A TED talk from Roland Griffiths, as well as an article by Michael Pollan in the New Yorker, have been other sources of good press. And though these substances could still be better understood, there is strong evidence that their effectiveness is linked to measureable activity they cause in the brain, wherein a mystical experience—indistinguishable from those experienced by the devoutly religious—is induced in the test subject.”
A pioneering study by Heffter researcher Matthew Johnson continues to draw attention in the media. A story in the online magazine ATTN covers Johnson’s research on the use of psilocybin for treating nicotine addiction. Writer Kyle Jaeger compares the success rate in Johnson’s study, in which 80 percent of the subjects remained abstinent after six months, with the 30 percent success rate for nicotine replacement and behavioral therapies.
“‘Quitting smoking isn’t a simple biological reaction to psilocybin, as with other medications that directly affect nicotine receptors,’ Dr. Matthew Johnson, the study’s lead author and an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, wrote. ‘When administered after careful preparation and in a therapeutic context, psilocybin can lead to deep reflection about one’s life and spark motivation to change.’
“Johnson plans to pursue further research into the use of psilocybin to treat smoking addiction, comparing the results to the success of using nicotine patches, and the researchers will ‘use MRI scans to study brain activity in participants.’”
A feature article in the December 2015 issue of Monitor on Psychology, a publication of the American Psychological Association, surveys recent developments in psychedelic science with an emphasis on Heffter-sponsored research. In “One Hit Wonder,” writer Kirsten Weir quotes Heffter researchers Roland Griffiths, Anthony Bossis, and Jeffrey Guss. The article focuses on psilocybin as a treatment for existential distress in cancer patients.
“We don’t deal well with death and dying in this culture,” says Roland Griffiths, PhD, a professor of behavioral biology and neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Being diagnosed with a potentially fatal disease often leads to a kind of chronic syndrome of anxiety, depression and emotional distress. “But under appropriate conditions in well-prepared participants, psilocybin can produce these really quite profound and abrupt shifts in mood and attitude and behavior, even after a single session,” he says. “It’s unlike anything available within psychiatry.”
The States of Consciousness Research Team at Johns Hopkins University is conducting a research study on psychedelic experiences that alter beliefs about death and dying. The study is open to anyone who has had such an experience involving the use of a classic psychedelic such as LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, or DMT. To participate in the study, complete the online Psychedelic Death and Dying Survey. The survey is anonymous and takes about 30 minutes to complete.