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Perceptual bliss // Awakening of the unconscious // Heightened lucidity and fresh perspective // A sense of illumination and unity // All of which could help a terminal cancer patient ease his troubled mind.

Hallucinogens: A Trip to Therapy

By Brandon Keim // Photograph by Shannon Taggart // Fall 2010
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Shannon Taggart

The examination rooms in the Bluestone Center for Clinical Research at the New York University College of Dentistry are exactly what you might expect of a facility that conducts trials of dental and medical therapies. There are reclining exam chairs, linoleum floors, fluorescent lights. The rooms are smartly professional and nondescript—with one exception.

If you were to walk through a certain door, you would find yourself standing on an Oriental carpet. You would also see a stereo system, abstract paintings, a Buddha head sculpture and a bookshelf whose titles include William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience and Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception. Replacing the exam chair is a well-cushioned sofa. This room is not for people with toothaches. It’s where participants in a certain clinical trial take psilocybin, the psychoactive compound in what are popularly known as magic mushrooms.

According to federal law, psilocybin has no medical uses, and in New York, possessing the substance may merit a year’s imprisonment. But researchers at NYU, along with teams at Johns Hopkins and the University of California, Los Angeles, have permission to study the drug. More than half a century earlier, psilocybin and lysergic acid diethylamide—LSD—had been the subject of intense clinical interest, until recreational abuses and their connection to antiestablishment sentiment made them taboo for serious research. A handful of researchers from the early studies remembered the drugs’ promise, while others—including psychiatrist Stephen Ross, head of the NYU study, who was born after the Summer of Love and unscarred by the culture wars that engulfed psychedelics—heard the old stories and found themselves fascinated.

Although the early studies were run too haphazardly to be conclusive by modern standards, the results were too intriguing to be dismissed out of hand. Some of the most promising findings involved using psychedelics with psychotherapy to ease anxiety and depression in people with terminal cancer—a group for whom modern medicine still has little to offer. “When you are diagnosed with terminal illness, it changes your construction of reality, your sense of place in the world,” says Ross. “Our hypothesis is that inducing a mystical experience leads to a shift in consciousness that creates a change in how you perceive yourself and your illness.”

While terminally ill patients are the main focus of the new psilocybin studies, the research is also targeting obsessive-compulsive disorder and cluster headaches. Other researchers, meanwhile, are investigating the neurobiology of psychedelics, hoping to explain the changes the drugs provoke in the brain and why some patients seem to benefit most from psychotherapy when it’s combined with the drugs.

During the heyday of formal psychedelic research—starting a decade after chemist Albert Hofmann’s 1938 synthesis of LSD and encompassing ethnomycologist R. Gordon Wasson’s ingestion in 1955 of Psilocybe mushrooms in rural Mexico—more than 1,000 scientific papers were published on psychedelics, and some 40,000 people took them in clinical settings. With compounds supplied in bulk to psychiatrists by drug manufacturer Sandoz, the field drew smart, ambitious researchers, not to mention celebrity test subjects, among them Huxley and composer André Previn. Bill Wilson, founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, took LSD with psychiatrist Sidney Cohen (later head of the National Institute of Mental Health’s drug abuse division) and compared the experience to those that catalyzed his sobriety; he tried unsuccessfully to make the drug a part of the AA program.

One prominent researcher was psychiatrist Walter Pahnke, whose interest was piqued in the early 1960s by Timothy Leary, his adviser at Harvard. Soon fired from his academic job, Leary became a countercultural icon who expounded on the potential of LSD at love-ins and light shows, and legitimate research into the drugs was overshadowed by stories of trippers staring at the sun or leaping out windows. In 1970 the Controlled Substances Act designated LSD and psilocybin as Schedule 1 drugs, posing extreme dangers and having no medical uses. Research on the drugs was still legal, but institutional support evaporated. The last bastion was the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center, where a team of researchers included Pahnke, until his death in a 1971 scuba accident, and Johns Hopkins clinical psychologist William Richards, among others. But there, too, research ground to a halt.

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Psychedelics and Music: Playlist for a Journey

Researchers share the soundtrack to their hallucinogenic therapy.


1. “Pilot Study of Psilocybin Treatment for Anxiety in Patients With Advanced-Stage Cancer,” by Charles S. Grob et al., Archives of General Psychiatry, published online Sept. 6, 2010. The publication of Grob’s findings in such a high-profile journal is a milestone in the re-emergence of therapeutic hallucinogens as a research field.

2. “The Neurobiology of Psychedelic Drugs: Implications for the Treatment of Mood Disorders,” by Franz X. Vollenweider and Michael Kometer, Nature Reviews Neuroscience, September 2010. An exhaustively detailed summation of what”s known about the effects of psychedelic drugs on the brain.

3. “The Rebirth of Research With Entheogens: Lessons From the Past and Hypotheses for the Future,” by William A. Richards, The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, July 1, 2009. One of the last great mid-century psychedelic researchers, Richards describes in passionate detail his field’s history.

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