NEW YORK — Cancer survivor Lauri Reamer lived in constant dread that her disease would return, until she took a psychedelic drug in a Johns Hopkins University study.
The 48-year mother of three was given psilocybin, the main ingredient in the “magic mushrooms” of the 1960s, as a remedy to ease anxiety. She spent most of her first “trip” crying, then emerged from the next with less anxiety, better sleep and happier relations with family and friends, she recalled.
The experience “really cracked me open,” said Reamer, an anesthesiologist at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore before she was diagnosed with leukemia. “It let me be in life again, instead of this place of fear where I had been living.”
Almost 40 years after Richard Nixon called former Harvard University psychologist Timothy Leary the most dangerous man in America for promoting use of hallucinogenic substances, there is a rebirth of interest in their therapeutic benefits. Reamer was enrolled in a clinical trial at Johns Hopkins to relieve fear of death in cancer patients, one of a half-dozen similar studies under way at New York University, Harvard, UCLA and the University of New Mexico.
The new research, largely driven by the psychiatric community, is also testing psychedelics for use against depression, chronic headaches and addiction as current scientists, much like their 1960s predecessors, seek to understand the “consciousness-expanding” effects of the drugs.
“There’s a renaissance of interest,” said Charles Grob, a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the UCLA, who researches psychedelics. “It took some decades for a new generation of scientists to step up, but there was never any doubt these compounds had potential. It was the ‘60s that intruded.”
Though there are biological components to anxiety and addiction, much of the underlying cause of these problems may involve how people think about the world around them, according to the researchers.
These drugs “diffuse in your brain and some people never see the world the same way again,” said David Nichols, a pharmacologist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., in a phone interview.
The research that includes Reamer is being run by Roland Griffiths, a professor of behavioral biology at Johns Hopkins. He’s also testing psilocybin to help smokers quit.
On Sept. 29, Griffiths reported in the Journal of Psychopharmacology that use of psilocybin in an earlier study conferred a lasting personality change in some of the 51 participants tested.
Griffiths became interested in the research after starting a meditation practice 17 years ago. He found early reports in the scientific literature of studies tying psychedelics to mystical experiences and other effects on visual perception and brain function, he said in a telephone interview.
“This whole class was declared too dangerous to proceed in the 1970s, and so it was put in a deep freeze,” Griffiths said. “Sometimes I feel like Rip Van Winkle, awakening the potential for research with these compounds.”
Leary did his research in the 1960s at the Harvard Psilocybin Project, running a series of experiments that gave psilocybin to divinity students to gauge their spiritual experiences and to prisoners to see if it would help keep them out of jail after their release.
That work led to Leary’s dismissal from Harvard in 1963, and contributed to a rise of experiments among young people as he famously urged them to “turn on, tune in, drop out.”
As today’s researchers pick up where those in the 1960s left off, they do so with the benefit of Food and Drug Administration-approved trials, better understanding of the brain’s circuits and chemistry, and funding from private sources, according to Griffiths.
Already, LSD and psilocybin research by psychiatrist John Halpern at Harvard has led to a drug, dubbed BOL-148, being developed by Boston-based startup Entheogen Corp.
The company is studying BOL-148, an LSD derivative, as a treatment for cluster headaches, sometimes called suicide headaches because they’re so painful that sufferers often kill themselves, said Halpern, Entheogen’s co-founder.
“This is an unmet need, and cluster headaches are among the most painful conditions known,” Halpern said in a telephone interview. “If I did schizophrenia research, I’d have 1,000 brilliant colleagues prodding me and tons of funding available. This is kind of like Siberia. It takes a long time to build the trust that you are interested in doing credible work.
“I figure I’m doing my job right when someone accuses me of supporting the drug war and someone else accuses me of sabotaging it,” he said.
Most of the half-dozen studies in this area listed on clinicaltrials.gov are funded by the Heffter Research Institute, a Santa Fe, N.M.-based organization. The institute is named for Arthur Heffter, the scientist who discovered mescaline, a drug made from the peyote cactus.
The organization has raised $2.7 million since 1993, when it was first incorporated, and funded 70 studies in research journals since 1999, according to Purdue’s Nichols, who is also a co-founder of the institute.
Nichols was in school in the ‘60s, and psychedelics didn’t quite make it to Cincinnati, where he lived, he said. Listening to the experiences since then of those who used the chemicals, he found they often listed their trips as being among the most meaningful things in their lives.
Reamer, the Johns Hopkins cancer patient, said she experienced “visions of peace and healing.” Still, not everyone should undergo the therapy, she said.
“It didn’t necessarily feel good, but what came out of it was pure joy,” Reamer said. “At the end of the sessions, I was exhausted from the emotional outpouring.”
Similar work with cancer patients is being done by Stephen Ross, a psychiatrist at New York University in Manhattan. He’s testing psilocybin in a nine-month death-anxiety study in which patients receive the drug and psychotherapy. Patients receive therapy for two to four weeks before their first dose of psilocybin.
The patients are dosed in a room designed to calm with art on the walls, classical music and flowers. Patients bring in family photos to help make them feel comfortable, Ross said in an interview.
Patients talk with the therapists about how they’re feeling and what they’re experiencing, and near the end of the trip, are asked to write journal entries. Then there are follow-up sessions for the rest of the nine months of the study.
“Sometimes they look like they’re asleep for hours,” said Ross, who is also director of substance abuse at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan. “Then they get up and tell us they’ve had an encounter with a transcendental force, or that they were in a beautiful dome with white light coming down, or that they were part of an artistic picture.”
To synthesize psilocybin, Ross contacted Organix Inc., a Woburn, Mass.-based closely held company. The compound, which cost $12,000 to make, is stored in a 10,000 pound safe in the NYU School of Dentistry, where the studies are conducted.
Nichols credits the resurgence of work in hallucinogens in part to Rick Strassman, a psychiatrist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, who works with DMT, the active ingredient in ayahuasca, a Colombian drug made from vines and shrubs commonly used for religious and healing purposes.
In 1994, Strassman published a paper in the Archives of General Psychiatry on the effects of DMT on the body’s heart and endocrine system, and another on the drug’s subjective effects.
Since Strassman’s initial work, the volume of psychedelic research has gradually increased, Nichols said.
Still, he said fundraising has been slow. The Heffter foundation initially thought research might be funded by people like Steve Jobs, the late Apple Inc. co-founder, and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who publicized their use of psychedelics, Nichols said. That wasn’t the case.
“It seemed well-known that many folks had used psychedelics to foster their creativity, but we never managed to snag any of them” to invest, he said.