Today, research involving psychoactive chemical compounds is in a perpetual state of evolution and advancement; something that, for some, still comes as a surprise after enduring what is now referred to as the “40-year-long bad trip,” which resulted from introducing LSD and other psychedelic substances to the Western psyche. This 40-year intellectual Dark Age eradicated such substances from the realm of medical research and scientific investigation, shunning the efficacy of what we are now finding to be powerful weapons in the fight against psychiatric illness. This decades-long research impediment and gross scientific negligence was based entirely on “enormous fear and misinformation and a vested interest in exaggerated stories about drugs to keep prohibition alive,” characterized by Rick Doblin, PhD and founder of Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS).
In the year 1999, psychedelic substance research received the first guiding-light it had seen since the prohibition of the 1960s thanks to a man by the name of Roland Griffiths, PhD. Griffiths is a professor in the departments of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, and one of the principal researchers investigating the behavioral and subjective effects of mood-altering drugs at Johns Hopkins University. Accompanied by a team of researchers, Griffiths initiated a new series of studies in 1999 to investigate the effects of psilocybin; studies that are now considered to be the reintroduction of psychedelics into the Western world of science and medicine.
Now known as the grandfather of the current psychedelics renaissance, and a 21st-century pioneer of psychedelic research, Griffiths remains on the forefront of advancing psychoactive substance research. His fascination in this field of science stems primarily from his own exploration of altered states of consciousness through mindfulness meditation practice. Intrigued by the way in which this intrapersonal exploration benefited his own state of existence, Griffiths became interested in the ways in which similar experiences induced by psychedelic substances may benefit those experiencing clinical psychological distress.
When Griffiths and his team began the series of psilocybin studies, it started to become clear that not only do the experiences induced by these substances allow for an unbridled exploration of one’s inner-self, but they also possess a remarkable potential for treating a broad range of conditions such as substance dependence, PTSD, depression, anxiety, and more. Griffiths was surprised by the amount of study volunteers (about two-thirds) who ranked their psychedelic experience as being among the most significant experiences of their lives. This was the seed that has since flourished into possibly the most speculated application revolving these substances: subsiding the angst suffered by those facing the inevitability of death.
It is safe to say that psychedelic substances will never be legally available at the drugstore for use at one’s own discretion. However, researchers do envision a time in which these substances will be recognized for their potential and permitted for use in controlled clinical settings. In an interview with Scientific American, Griffiths sheds some light on the latest studies to emerge from JHU, as well as the progress of some of his other psychedelic investigations, all of which he hopes may one day contribute to the survival and psychological wellness of our species.
A transcript of the interview between Griffiths and SA can be found below.
What were your concerns going into the cancer study?
The volunteers came to us often highly stressed and demoralized by their illness and the often-grueling medical treatment. I felt very cautious at first, wondering if this might not re-wound people dealing with the painful questions of death and dying. How do we know that this kind of experience with this disorienting compound wouldn’t exacerbate that? It turns out that it doesn’t. It does just the opposite. The experience appears to be deeply meaningful spiritually and personally, and very healing in the context of people’s understanding of their illness and how they manage that going forward.
Could you describe your procedure?
We spent at least eight hours talking to people about their cancer, their anxiety, their concerns and so on to develop good rapport with them before the trial. During the sessions there was no specific psychological intervention—we were just inviting people to lie on the couch and explore their own inner experience.
What did your research subjects tell you about that experience?
There is something about the core of this experience that opens people up to the great mystery of what it is that we don’t know. It is not that everybody comes out of it and says, ‘Oh, now I believe in life after death.’ That needn’t be the case at all. But the psilocybin experience enables a sense of deeper meaning, and an understanding that in the largest frame everything is fine and that there is nothing to be fearful of. There is a buoyancy that comes of that which is quite remarkable. To see people who are so beaten down by this illness, and they start actually providing reassurance to the people who love them most, telling them ‘it is all okay and there is no need to worry’— when a dying person can provide that type of clarity for their caretakers, even we researchers are left with a sense of wonder.
Was this positive result universal?
We found that the response was dose-specific. The larger dose created a much larger response than the lower dose. We also found that the occurrence of mystical-type experiences is positively correlated with positive outcomes: Those who underwent them were more likely to have enduring, large-magnitude changes in depression and anxiety.
Did any of your volunteers experience difficulties?
There are potential risks associated with these compounds. We can protect against a lot of those risks, it seems, through the screening and preparation procedure in our medical setting. About 30 percent of our people reported some fear or discomfort arising sometime during the experience. If individuals are anxious, then we might say a few words, or hold their hand. It is really just grounding them in consensual reality, reminding them that they have taken psilocybin, that everything is going to be alright. Very often these short-lived experiences of psychological challenge can be cathartic and serve as doorways into personal meaning and transcendence—but not always.
Where do you go from here?
The Heffter Research Institute, which funded our study, has just opened a dialogue with the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) about initiating a phase 3 investigation. A phase 3 clinical trial is the gold standard for determining whether something is clinically efficacious and meets the standards that are necessary for it to be released as a pharmaceutical. Approval would be under very narrow and restrictive conditions initially. The drug might be controlled by a central pharmacy, which sends it to clinics that are authorized to administer psilocybin in this therapeutic context. So this is not writing a prescription and taking it home. The analogy would be more like an anesthetic being dispensed and managed by an anesthesiologist.
You are also currently conducting research on psilocybin and smoking.
We are using psilocybin in conjunction with cognitive behavioral therapy with cigarette smokers to see if these deeply meaningful experiences that can happen with psilocybin can be linked with the intention and commitment to quit smoking, among people who have failed repeatedly to do so. Earlier we ran an uncontrolled pilot study on that in 50 volunteers, in which we had 80 percent abstinence rates at six months. Now we are doing a controlled clinical trial in that population.
How do you account for your remarkable initial results?
People who have taken psilocybin appear to have more confidence in their ability to change their own behavior and to manage their addictions. Prior to this experience, quite often the individual feels that they have no freedom relative to their addiction, that they are hooked and they don’t have the capacity to change. But after an experience of this sort—which is like backing up and seeing the larger picture—they begin to ask themselves ‘Why would I think that I couldn’t stop cigarette smoking? Why would I think that this craving is so compelling that I have to give in to it?’ When the psilocybin is coupled with cognitive behavioral therapy, which is giving smokers tools and a framework to work on this, it appears to be very helpful.
You are also working with meditation practitioners. Are they having similar experiences?
We have done an unpublished study with beginning meditators. We found that psilocybin potentiates their engagement with their spiritual practice, and it appears to boost dispositional characteristics like gratitude, compassion, altruism, sensitivity to others and forgiveness. We were interested in whether the psilocybin used in conjunction with meditation could create sustained changes in people that were of social value. And that appears to be the case.
So it is actually changing personality?
Yes. That is really interesting because personality is considered to be a fixed characteristic; it is generally thought to be locked down in an individual by their early twenties. And yet here we are seeing significant increases in their “openness” and other pro-social dimensions of personality, which are also correlated with creativity, so this is truly surprising.
Do we know what is actually happening in the brain?
We are doing neuro-imaging studies. Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris’s group at Imperial College in London is also doing neuro-imaging studies. So it is an area of very active investigation. The effects are perhaps explained, at least initially, by changes in something [in the brain] called “the default mode network,” which is involved in self-referential processing [and in sustaining our sense of ego]. It turns out that this network is hyperactive in depression. Interestingly, in meditation it becomes quiescent, and also with psilocybin it becomes quiescent. This may correlate with the experience of clarity of coming into the present moment.
That is perhaps an explanation of the acute effects, but the enduring effects are much less clear, and I don’t think that we have a good handle on that at all. Undoubtedly it is going to be much more complex than just the default mode network, because of the vast interconnectedness of brain function.
What are the practical implications of this kind of neurological and therapeutic knowledge of psychedelics?
Ultimately it is not really about psychedelics. Science is going to take it beyond psychedelics when we start understanding the brain mechanisms underlying this and begin harnessing these for the benefit of humankind.
The core mystical experience is one of the interconnectedness of all people and things, the awareness that we are all in this together. It is precisely the lack of this sense of mutual caretaking that puts our species at risk right now, with climate change and the development of weaponry that can destroy life on the planet. So the answer is not that everybody needs to take psychedelics. It is to understand what mechanisms maximize these kinds of experiences, and to learn how to harness them so that we don’t end up annihilating ourselves.
Griffiths, R. R., W. A. Richards, M. W. Johnson, U. D. McCann, and R. Jesse. "Mystical-type Experiences Occasioned by Psilocybin Mediate the Attribution of Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance 14 Months Later." Sage Journals. Journal of Psychopharmacology, n.d. Web. 06 Feb. 2017.
Griffiths, R. R., W. A. Richards, U. McCann, and R. Jesse. "Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance."SpringerLink. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Feb. 2017.
Griffiths, R., M. Johnson, M. Carducci, A. Umbricht, W. Richards, B. Richards, M. Cosimano, and M. Klinedinst. "Psilocybin Produces Substantial and Sustained Decreases in Depression and Anxiety in Patients with Life-threatening Cancer: A Randomized Double-blind Trial." Sage Journals. Journal of Psychopharmacology, n.d. Web. 06 Jan. 2017.