04 July 2008

From "magic mushrooms" to evidence-based medicine

Oleg Lischuk, Medical PortalScientists from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, have published the results of a study of the long-term effects of a single dose of the hallucinogen psilocybin contained in "magic mushrooms" on healthy volunteers.

They came to the conclusion that such a technique, carried out in conditions of proper training and support of a specialist, increases the feeling of well-being and satisfaction with life, and this effect persists for a long period of time.

36 people were selected on the basis of physical health, sufficient education (not lower than college) and lack of family history of psychoses and bipolar (manic-depressive) disorders. None of them had previously used psilocybin or other hallucinogens. The volunteers were psychologically prepared for the upcoming experiment, during the action of the substance (about eight hours) they were under the supervision of a specialist. Some of them noted episodes of fear or anxiety, but these unpleasant sensations were not long-lasting, and a medical examination did not reveal clinically significant violations. The comparison group received an active placebo in the form of the psychostimulant methylphenidate (Ritalin). After the experiment, the volunteers were asked to fill out a questionnaire.

Most of the subjects described the sensations of taking psilocybin as "the most or one of the five most significant personal and spiritual experiences in life" with an obviously increased sense of well-being and satisfaction with life after the experiment. After 14 months, all volunteers were asked to fill out the same questionnaires with questions about the long-term effects of the experience. It turned out that positive changes in the perception of life and a high personal assessment of experiences persisted during the specified period in the absence of any side effects.

From the depths of centuriesThe study of American scientists is not the first manifestation of interest in the properties of "magic mushrooms" and their active components.

The first known evidence of the use of hallucinogenic mushrooms in shamanic rituals was obtained during the study of Mesolithic rock paintings belonging to the Kapsi culture of the XI-VII millennia BC in North Africa.

The most widely used "magic mushrooms", belonging mainly to the genus Psilocybe, were used in the cultures of the indigenous population of America. The Indians of the Maya, Aztecs, Matsatecs and some others used them for ritual, "visionary" and medicinal purposes. With the arrival of Europeans on the American continent, many rituals, including those related to mushrooms, were persecuted by the Catholic Church as idolatry. Because of this, they have lost their mass character and have been preserved only in remote hard-to-reach areas.

Over time, the Europeans' memories of psilocybes have grown overgrown with so many inventions and inaccuracies that by the beginning of the twentieth century, many scientists were inclined to believe that "magic mushrooms" were either a myth or were incorrectly described peyote cacti (Lophophora williamsii) containing the hallucinogen of amphetamine nature mescaline.

This point of view was refuted thanks to the research of ethnobotanists Blas Pablo Reko, Richard Evans Schultes and Robert Gordon Wasson. In 1955, Wasson and his wife Valentina and mycologist Roger Heim during an expedition to the Mexican province of Oaxaca – the habitat of the Matsatecs – became the first representatives of Western civilization to take part in the "mushroom ritual". Wasson described his impressions in a publication in the large-circulation magazine "Life". Heim identified hallucinogenic mushrooms as belonging to the genus Psilocybe. Mushroom samples were delivered to the Swiss pharmacologist Albert Hofmann, who synthesized and studied the effects of LSD for the first time. Hoffman isolated, described and synthesized artificially psychoactive components of mushrooms, called psilocin and psilocybin.

Infamous Harvard psychology professor Timothy Leary, inspired by Wasson's publications, repeated his Mexican experience. Returning to Harvard in 1960, together with his colleague Richard Alpert, he opened the Harvard Psilocybin Project, designed to study the psychological and religious aspects of taking psilocybin and other hallucinogens, and in fact popularizing their use. In addition, the possibility of using the substance in the therapy of personality disorders and in psychological counseling was studied. After being removed from their professorships in 1963, Leary and Alpert (who later took the spiritual name Baba Ram Dass, Baba Ram Dass) continued their activities outside of Harvard, becoming, in fact, the "godfathers" of the nascent hippie movement.

Thanks to these events, the use of hallucinogens has become widespread all over the world, with psilocybin becoming the most widespread, since psilocybs grow everywhere and are also relatively easy to cultivate. This has led to increased attention to "magic mushrooms" from both researchers and law enforcement agencies. Throughout the 1960s, the pharmacology and very low toxicity of psilocin and psilocybin were investigated, and attempts were also made to use them for the treatment of psychiatric diseases, for example, obsessive-compulsive disorder. The reliability of works on this topic is questionable due to the subjectivity of researchers and violations of the rules for conducting scientific experiments.

Psilocybin, along with LSD and other indole hallucinogens, was used by Czech-American psychologist Stanislav Grof in his research that led to the creation of transpersonal psychology.

The massive and uncontrolled use of hallucinogens and the growing number of related incidents led to a ban on these substances in most countries by the UN Convention in 1971. This ban, on the one hand, somewhat reduced the consumption of hallucinogens and transferred their turnover to an illegal basis, and on the other hand, significantly hindered scientific research in this area. Despite this, some scientific institutions, in particular Johns Hopkins University, managed to obtain a license to work with these substances and study them, now according to all the rules of evidence-based medicine.

What is the pointThe psilocybin alkaloid contained in hallucinogenic mushrooms is a proactive compound that in the body turns into psychoactive psilocin (contained in mushrooms in smaller quantities) by splitting off the phosphoric acid residue.

It acts as a stimulator of serotonin (5-HT) receptors, mainly subtypes 5-HT 1A, 5-HT 2A and 5-HT 2C. It is low-toxic and does not cause the development of drug dependence.

The physical effects of psilocybin/psilocin are dose-dependent and may include loss of appetite, nausea, chills, sensitivity disorders, moderate limb weakness and pupil dilation.

Sensory effects can affect almost all sensory organs, primarily sight and hearing. It is also characterized by a violation of the perception of time, which subjectively can slow down or accelerate.

Colors become brighter and more contrasting, halos around illuminated objects are often observed, perspective distortion, luminous "haze" in the air, mobility of surfaces by the type of overflow, ripples, pulsation or deformation, kaleidoscopic movement of textures, changes in color of objects, luminous plumes of moving objects. With an increase in dosage, more complex and decorated spatial hallucinations appear in the form of changeable images and landscapes that occur both with open and closed eyes.

Sounds acquire an unusual purity, the melody can slow down, accelerate, or acquire effects similar to manipulations with an equalizer. Synesthesia is characteristic when sounds generate visual images and vice versa.

Emotional effects can range from delight to horror, from disorientation to crystal clear thinking, from bliss and euphoria to anxiety and fear. The nature of these effects strongly depends on the information preparation of a person for the action of substances, his initial mood, the environment and people. That is why American researchers warn that uncontrolled intake of psilocybin can harm both the person himself and others. At the same time, they came to the conclusion that the action of the substance under proper conditions and under the supervision of a specialist does not lead to prolonged and severe unpleasant sensations.

Psychological effects generally include increased introspection, a change in the assessment of one's own experiences (including traumatic ones), a new look at the essential aspects of life (up to changes in the value system), concentration of thoughts and memories, depth in thinking about life, as well as mystical experience in the form of unity with nature, "higher forces", "absolute", etc.

It was the psychological effects of psilocybin, which led to the positive results of the experiment, that allowed scientists from Baltimore to conclude that the use of the substance for the psychological adaptation of cancer patients and people with drug dependence was promising. Of course, subject to appropriate preparation and treatment in proper conditions in the presence of a specialist.

Theoretical contradictions of the potential effectiveness of psilocybin therapy have not yet been obtained, but a series of additional studies is needed to implement the technique. One of them is being prepared by the same group of researchers, it will include people with psychological disorders about an existing or cured cancer. This study, in addition to studying the safety and effectiveness of the method, will serve as a basis for the development of specific recommendations for the use of psilocybin for medicinal purposes.

In addition, if the experiment is successful, the introduction of psilocybin into clinical practice will require the creation of a legal framework for its use, since this substance is currently prohibited for medical use. The fact that this barrier is surmountable is evidenced by the fact that in the arsenal of medicine there are many drugs classified as controlled substances, such as opiates, ketamine, some amphetamines and other substances.

Portal "Eternal youth" www.vechnayamolodost.ru04.07.2008

Found a typo? Select it and press ctrl + enter Print version