Newswise — — BALTIMORE, October 12 — Psilocybin-occasioned experience, in conjunction with meditation and other daily spiritual practices, can yield significant and enduring increases in personal traits such as altruism, gratitude, forgiveness, and interpersonal closeness, as well as decreases in fear of death, according to a recent Johns Hopkins research study.
The findings, published online today in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, come from the latest and largest in a series of scientifically rigorous experiments done at Johns Hopkins designed to shed light on experiences occasioned by psilocybin, a psychoactive substance found in certain mushrooms used for centuries in various cultures for healing and religious purposes.
People often report beneficial experiences after taking psilocybin, but previous experimental studies with healthy, normal volunteers have shown little reliable evidence of enduring positive trait changes, according to Roland Griffiths, lead author of the new study and a professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
“What is unique about this latest study is that positive changes were found in several traits. In contrast to ‘states’, ‘traits’ are relatively stable and very resistant to change,” explained Griffiths. “Importantly, the trait changes were measured using scientifically validated scales, and positive change was corroborated by ratings from friends and colleagues who had established relationships with study participants,” he added.
“This landmark study documents positive effects of psilocybin on a wide variety of positive psychological traits and behaviors when administered after appropriate screening and under safeguarded conditions,” said Ralph W. Hood, professor of psychology and distinguished professor of religious studies at University of Tennessee, who reviewed the study’s design and findings.
In this most recent Johns Hopkins psilocybin study, all 75 volunteer participants were given preparatory guidance, instructions for meditation and other daily, non-sectarian spiritual practices, and psilocybin sessions at 1 and 2 months after beginning the spiritual practices. The daily practices were intended to help integrate into daily life spiritual ideals, such as prosocial attitudes and behaviors, self-knowledge through examining the nature of mind, and a sense of wonder.
One third of the study participants, randomly selected, received high-dose psilocybin sessions and extra encouragement and support for the daily practices, partly through facilitated dialogue meetings with other study participants. It was this group that showed the greatest positive trait changes overall.
Another third of the participants received high-dose psilocybin sessions with medium-level support for the daily spiritual practices, and one third of the participants received low-dose psilocybin, functionally a placebo, with medium-level support for the daily practices.
The study’s key quantitative findings, a few of which are summarized below, are the measured trait-change differences among these three groups. Generally, the positive trait changes were predicted by the extent to which the participant had a mystical-type experience during a psilocybin session, and to a significant though lesser degree by the participant’s rates of engagement with the daily spiritual practices.
Strengths of the study included its rigorous double-blind design that minimized expectancy effects and its use of scientifically validated trait measures of healthy psychological functioning. Some of the limitations of the study are that its experimental design did not permit evaluation of high support of meditation and other daily practices independent of psilocybin, that the participant population was relatively homogenous, and that brain-based outcome measures such fMRI were not obtained.
The new publication is titled, “Psilocybin-occasioned mystical-type experience in combination with meditation and other spiritual practices produces enduring positive changes in psychological functioning and in trait measures of prosocial attitudes and behaviors.” It is published with open access. It was authored by Roland R. Griffiths, Matthew W. Johnson, William A. Richards, Brian D. Richards, Robert Jesse, Katherine A. MacLean, Frederick S. Barrett, Mary P. Cosimano, and Maggie A. Klinedinst.
The research was funded by the Fetzer Institute (fetzer.org) and the Council on Spiritual Practices (csp.org). The Heffter Research Institute (heffter.org) also provided support.
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SUPPLEMENTAL MATERIAL: Study design, measures, outcomes, and risk management
Study Design (excerpted from the journal article)
The study was conducted with 75 volunteers screened to include only psychologically and physically healthy individuals (see “Risk Management,” below). Ages ranged from 22 to 69, and 40% were male. Participants were randomized to three groups of 25 each: 1. low-dose psilocybin (1 mg/70 kg, functionally a placebo, on sessions 1 and 2) with standard-level support for the spiritual practices, called LD-SS; 2. high-dose psilocybin (20 and 30 mg/70 kg on sessions 1 and 2, respectively) with standard-level support for the spiritual practices, called HD-SS; and 3. high-dose psilocybin (20 and 30 mg/70 kg on sessions 1 and 2, respectively) with high support for the spiritual practices, called HD-HS.
Psilocybin was administered double-blind, and the instructions to participants and staff were designed to minimize expectancy confounds. Each participant received psilocybin sessions at 1 and 2 months after he or she initiated the study’s spiritual practices. To assess enduring changes, measures were taken at baseline and at 6 months.
At the first guide-participant meeting, each participant was given a copy of the book, Meditation: A Simple 8-Point Program for Translating Spiritual Ideals into Daily Life (Easwaran 1991/1978), a blank journal, and a one-page outline of spiritual practice suggestions. This book was chosen as a primary teaching resource because its approach provides an easily understood, nonsectarian program for spiritual living that has shown increases in measures of spirituality, well-being, self-efficacy, and health outcomes.
As in earlier Hopkins psilocybin studies, the eight-hour sessions took place in an aesthetic, living-room-like setting with two trained monitors present. The participants were encouraged to recline on a couch, put on eye shades and headphones, and to turn their attention inward as a program of music played. The program, used for all sessions, consisted of classical and world music chosen to complement the arc of the psilocybin action, from onset, through the peak of the effects, and subsiding back to baseline.
Study Measures Showing Significant Between-group Differences (excerpted from the journal article)
Instruments that showed significant differences among the experimental groups at 6 months included the “Hood Mysticism Scale”; the “Faith Maturity Scale,” a questionnaire assessing the degree to which a person embodies the priorities, commitments, and perspectives of faith as these have been understood in mainline Protestant traditions; “Brief RCOPE,” a measure of religious/spiritual coping with stressful life events; the “Daily Spiritual Experience Scale,” a measure of an individual’s perception of and interaction with the transcendent in daily life; the “Death Transcendence Scale,” which assesses attitudes about death; the Gratitude Questionnaire (GQ-6), a measure of gratefulness and appreciation in daily life; the “Coherence subscale of the Life Attitude Profile – Revised”; the “Trait Forgiveness Scale”; “TRIM-18,” a scale assessing forgiveness of interpersonal transgression; the 3-item “Forgiveness” subscale of the BMMRS; “Sanctification of Strivings,” which rates life strivings on the dimensions of sacred, spiritual, holy, heavenly, and blessed; the “Schwartz Value Scale,” a measure of relative importance of various life values; the “Inclusion of Others in the Self” scale (IOS), a measure of interpersonal closeness; and the “Assessment of Spirituality and Religious Sentiments” (ASPIRES), a community observer-rated questionnaire that assesses an individual’s effort to create a broad sense of personal meaning in his or her life, reflected in three factors: Prayer Fulfillment, Universality, and Connectedness.
Illustrative Study Results (excerpted from the article and supplementary tables)
The study collected data from numerous measures, and many robust between-group differences were found. Here are the effect sizes (Cohen’s d) of some of these differences:
- Altruism: Comparing LD-SS to HD-SS, the effect size was 1.36, which statisticians consider “very large.” Comparing LD-SS to HD-HS, the effect size was 1.95, considered “very large,” almost “huge.”
- Trait Forgiveness Scale: Comparing LD-SS to HD-HS, the effect size was 0.55, and comparing LD-SS to HD-HS, the effect size was 0.64. Both are considered “medium” effect sizes.
- Interpersonal Closeness: Comparing LD-SS to HD-SS, the effect size was 0.82 (considered “large”). No significant difference was found between HD-SS and HD-HS.
- “How personally meaningful was the experience?” This measure yielded the largest effect size seen in the study, 2.47 (considered “huge”), shown between the LD-SS and HD-HS conditions.
On the Revised NEO Personality Inventory, the HD-HS group showed a significant increase in Openness from baseline to 6 months. No significant between-group differences were found in Openness or the other four NEO scales.
Participants were asked to rate the spiritual significance of their experience in the study. Consistent with the positive changes in various traits, 12% of the LD-SS group, 76% of the HD-SS group, and 96% of the HD-HS group rated their experience as among the top 5 most spiritually significant of their lives. Zero percent, 40%, and 56%, respectively, rated it as the single most spiritually significant.
The study screened for volunteers who were physically healthy, psychologically healthy and robust, and without a personal or family history of bipolar disorder or psychotic disorder. For each psilocybin session, two trained monitors were present to provide support if needed and to assure safety.
“Safety with psilocybin encompasses more than its direct pharmacological effects. We know that psilocybin is remarkably non-toxic to the body’s organ systems. But there are behavioral risks: if someone experiences high anxiety, fear, or paranoia during a psilocybin session, it’s not hard to imagine them behaving in ways harmful to themselves or others,” explained Matthew W. Johnson, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins and lead author of an earlier Hopkins paper on hallucinogen administration safety. Johnson, also an author of the new study, continued, “We can also imagine the possibility that strong, transient negative emotions could leave someone feeling confused and psychologically overwhelmed without appropriate interpersonal support. Both of these risks appear to be minimized when volunteers develop a trusting relationship with a skilled monitor, who remains present with them for the duration of the substance’s primary effects, and who is available afterwards for consultation.”The researchers said they do not recommend use of psilocybin outside of such a controlled setting.
“So far, our research team has given more than 500 psilocybin sessions to about 300 study participants. We’ve had no serious adverse events attributed to psilocybin. The large majority of participants have reported that their psilocybin sessions lead to lasting increases in well-being," said Johnson.
Psilocybin in Medical Treatments
Griffiths noted that "This study’s positive findings with healthy participants may be relevant to the clinical applications of psilocybin in the treatment of addiction and in the treatment of psychological distress associated with life-threatening illnesses."
Building on Heffter-supported research published last year by Johns Hopkins and New York University, the non-profit Usona Institute (usonainstitute.org) is currently engaged with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and is preparing the pivotal clinical trials necessary for FDA approval of psilocybin for treatment of depression in cancer patients and in the general population.
Previous Johns Hopkins Psilocybin Research
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