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Breakthroughs

Unlocking the Magic in ‘Magic Mushrooms’

By Julie Scharper
Roland Griffiths
Roland Griffiths is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.

Four years ago, Richard Cone was facing a devastating diagnosis. The prostate cancer he’d been battling for seven years had spread. Like many cancer patients, he was depressed and afraid. Then Cone, a Johns Hopkins bio­physics professor, signed up for an unusual study for cancer patients. In a Johns Hopkins School of Medicine laboratory decorated like a cozy living room, he took psilocybin—the hallucinogen in “magic mushrooms”—and spent the next several hours having an intense emotional and visual experience.

Cone’s first psilocybin session was challenging. He relived the grief of his daughter’s death from cancer some 30 years prior. But a second session a few weeks later brought peace. Cone remembers how he experienced a vision of all living things being connected, easing his fears of death. Through both of his sessions, a pair of counselors accompanied Cone to make sure he was safe and guided on his emotional journey.

In the years since the sessions, Cone’s depression has stayed at bay. In its place is a renewed appreciation of life. “The ability for me to experience more of myself and more of what life is … very much enables me to go forward,” Cone says.

He is not alone. Eighty percent of participants in the study, which was led by Johns Hopkins neuroscientist and behavioral biologist Roland Griffiths, reported a significant reduction in depression and anxiety six months later. More than two-thirds said the psilocybin sessions were among the most meaningful experiences in their lives. The exact mechanism for the change is unclear, Griffiths says, but the profound experience appears to have reframed their view of their illness—and the world.

“They’re capable of seeing a larger, more holistic picture where everyone and everything is interconnected,” Griffiths says. “It can be very uplifting.”

The results are particularly remarkable because anti­depressants often produce side effects and take weeks to kick in. In contrast, a single psilocybin session, which lasts from four to six hours, produces immediate and lasting changes in mood. A separate study at NYU Langone Medical Center found similar results. Griffiths says further research would be needed to determine how psilocybin changes the brain.

The cancer study builds on Griffiths’ 15 years of research on psilocybin. His previous work has demonstrated that using psilocybin in a controlled setting can lead to life-changing experiences. Psilocybin, which has been used in some religious traditions for hundreds or possibly thousands of years, can occasion mystical states similar to those that people experience in religious rituals, Griffiths says. “If virtually everyone can have these experiences under the right conditions, it means that we’re wired to have them. They’re biologically normal,” he says. But he recommends using psilocybin only after careful screening and in a medical or laboratory setting, where specially trained staff can assure safety and assuage fears.

Antidepressants often produce side effects and take weeks to kick in. In contrast, a single psilocybin session, which lasts from four to six hours, produces immediate and lasting changes in mood.

Griffiths’ team is also conducting a study to see whether psilocybin can help long-term smokers quit and is preparing to launch a new study with patients experiencing persistent depression. Griffiths and the NYU researchers now plan to seek the approval of the Food and Drug Administration to replicate the cancer study with a larger group of patients. If that goes well, psilocybin could one day be an approved treatment for psychological distress in cancer patients.

For Cone, the psilocybin sessions continue to inspire him. “One of the things that’s still strongly living on in me is the feeling of being happy to wake up,” he says. “I enjoy the pleasure of lying in bed in the morning and not being depressed.”

Illustration of a psychedelic magic mushroom
Illustration above by Oliver Hibert; Portrait to the left by Caroline Andrieu
When given in controlled doses, psilocybin—the hallucinogen in “magic mushrooms”—has the power to reduce depression and anxiety in cancer patients.

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