Psilocybin Therapy; Inside a Clinical Trial with Magic Mushrooms
What is it like to take psilocybin in a clinical trial? Dr. Roland Griffiths, PhD, a researcher who focuses on the effects of mood-altering drugs, recently described the course of a patient's clinical trial experience with psilocybin, which is the active ingredient of psychedelic mushrooms. Speaking during a New York Academy of Sciences webinar, Dr. Griffiths explained that volunteers must first meet certain criteria. The experience can be intense, and researchers screen out people with certain psychological disorders. Scientists and therapists also look for people with whom they can establish a bond of trust, which can be especially important since the drug can bring about temporary disorientation or anxiety.
Dr. Griffiths is a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Director of the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research. His studies include trials to evaluate the use of psilocybin for treatment of psychological distress in cancer patients, cigarette addiction, and major depression. The sessions are similar regardless of the therapeutic goal, but planning and follow up techniques vary depending on the psychological condition being addressed.
In all cases, the therapy takes careful execution. During the experience, volunteers are never left alone; two clinicians or therapists are always standing by. The day of drug treatment is long. And the dose of psilocybin is large. During the experience, volunteers are never left alone; two clinicians or therapists are always standing by.
Dr. Griffiths said eye shades and music help people turn their attention inward, and help them avoid being distracted by therapists who are in the room to monitor the process. This very inward-focus with psilocybin is different than therapy with some other psychedelics. In trials with MDMA, which is commonly known as Ecstasy, volunteers usually are more talkative while under the influence of the drug.
Sessions follow the treatment with psilocybin, when therapists help patients make sense of the experience.
Experiences can vary, but patients often exhibit emotionality and report visualizations and feelings of deep connection with “others”, including the divine. Dr. Griffiths said patients often rate the experiences as among the most personally meaningful of their lifetime.
While there are plenty of mysteries about the immediate impact of these drugs and their effects on consciousness, scientists are learning more about changes they bring about in brain chemistry. Scientists are also developing theories about how the drugs may lead to long-term changes and benefit, which volunteers report in many studies.
Read this story to learn more from Dr. Griffiths, and from David E. Nichols, PhD, of the Heffter Research Institute, about how these drugs may "reset" brain networks.
And to complement Dr. Griffith's description of therapy with psilocybin, read this article about volunteers' experiences with another psychedelic, MDMA. That story is told by another participant in the webcast, Rachel Yehuda, PhD, of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai.
The Academy program, Psychedelics to Treat Depression and Psychiatric Disorders, was moderated by John Krystal, MD, of the Yale School of Medicine.
Photo of therapy session with psilocybin courtesy of the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research.