‘Shroom Science: Safe and Effective?
Fifty years after its introduction to science, psilocybin returns to mainstream clinical research.
A Column by: Glenn McGee
Are Ritalin and psilocybin equivalent in terms of effect and safety?
In the August issue of Psychopharmacology, Johns Hopkins researchers published a study in which some subjects were given psilocybin and then asked to relate their experiences. Francisco Moreno of the University of Arizona published in the November issue of the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry his patients’ reports that psilocybin helped them with migraine headaches. Harbor-UCLA Medical Center psychiatrist Charles Grob told the Chronicle of Higher Education that he is giving the compound to patients dying of cancer to see whether it eases pain by relieving anxiety.
The study of so-called magic mushrooms isn’t new; it could be argued that it is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. It began, as best anyone can tell, when Wall Street banker R. Gordon Wasson documented his trip to a healer in Oaxaca, Mexico, whose brew, he claimed, enabled him to see the reality of ideas and concepts. His 1957 essay in Life magazine excited the imaginations of scientists around the world. Sandoz patented the two active chemicals in the mushrooms, calling the compounds psilocin and psilocybin. Chaos ensued as researchers struggled to do excellent scientific work using a family of substances whose effects – to put it mildly – were not easily measurable using the tools of the time.
The scientists who used psilocybin in their research in the 1960s poked at the nature of consciousness, but this particular compound just refused to be caged by ordinary scientific conventions. Paper after paper stabbed at descriptions of the effects and utility of psilocybin, but scalar measures of transcendence just could not capture its effects, or side effects. A few of the leading scientists engaged in its study, most notoriously Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary, simply abandoned the strictures of scientific research as insufficient to grasp the power of psilocybin.
By the time the FDA banned hallucinogenic drugs in 1970, the majority of those experimenting with mushrooms were not in universities. Hallucinogens became part of a counterculture that aged quickly. By the 1980s, the next counterculture devoted to brain modification was moving in a completely different direction, experimenting with highly addictive stimulants, such as cocaine, which assist in thinking faster, concentrating harder, and intensifying ordinary experiences.
Time passes, and what’s old becomes new again. In 2007 millions of people take legal stimulants and antidepressants. A decades-long quest for endless work capacity, unfettered concentration, and happiness on-demand has perhaps hastened the return of those who wonder whether the touch of transcendence could provide new insights into treating the maladies that have become rampant in our time. And indeed, new studies suggest that psilocybin may offer hope in treating a few of them, ranging from obsessive-compulsive disorder to rampant addiction.
With the dramatically enhanced ability of neural imaging to identify changes in brain state, and advances in the genetics of neuroscience, it is no wonder that some of those who researched psilocybin in the 1970s have begun to point again to the potential of that compound. Magic mushrooms are not addictive and have been around more than half a century. So should we really be worried about the potential that new research will lead a new generation to “turn on, tune in, and drop out”? Yes.
Ethics committees examining the research programs underway with hallucinogens need to be mindful that what sparked the widespread illegal use of psilocybin in the 1970s was not its mystical power but the reports of its safety and efficacy coming out of the leading institutions of higher learning in the United States. Scientists are acting with great care this time around, but let’s avoid a bad trip.
Hallucinogens have not been scientifically demonstrated to be either safe or effective enough to be used in the treatment of any disease. Studies of them should be undertaken only when investigators avoid sending subtle messages about the safety or delight of chewing on backyard mushrooms. For example, in the Hopkins study subjects were given either Ritalin or psilocybin, sending the terribly premature message that the two substances are in any sense equivalent in terms of effect or safety. It would have been much better to compare psilocybin with, well, anything other than a compound prescribed to tens of millions and often abused by those seeking better cognition.
Thankfully that study was all but ignored by the media. When it comes to hallucinogens, if the research sends the wrong message, drop it. Or rather, don’t.
Glenn McGee is the director of the Alden March Bioethics Institute at Albany Medical College, where he holds the John A. Balint Endowed Chair in Medical Ethics. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Scientist published an article about psilocybin research that attempts to point to the risks of psychedelic research. Read Are Ritalin and psilocybin equivalent in terms of effect and safety?