From Friday's Globe and Mail
July 4, 2008
Research into the medical benefits of hallucinogenic drugs is back in
vogue after being avoided by mainstream scientists for decades.
A team of researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore this
week released the follow-up results of a study involving 36
volunteers who were given psilocybin - the chemical ingredient in
"sacred" or "magic" mushrooms - in a carefully controlled laboratory setting.
A questionnaire completed 14 months after the one-day drug trial
found the majority of participants considered the experience to be
one of the most "personally meaningful and spiritually significant"
events of their lives. Even more surprising, they felt the drug had a
long-lasting effect that significantly contributed to their overall
sense of well-being and life satisfaction.
"I think we are into a new era of research," said Matthew Johnson,
one of the authors of the study published in the Journal of
He noted that it used to be common for researchers to explore the
potential therapeutic uses of a wide range of hallucinogenic drugs
including psilocybin, LSD and DMT. But the drug excesses of the
psychedelic 1960s tarnished the legitimate research, and the trials
were brought to a halt.
Now, a small but growing number of scientists in the United States
and Europe are once again recruiting patients for studies of the
Dr. Johnson said the mind-altering aspects of hallucinogens could
possibly help cancer patients come to terms with their impending
death. The drugs might also assist people overcoming certain
addictions through greater self-awareness.
Still, there is a risk the drugs could also trigger anxiety and
paranoia - basically "a bad trip" - and special precautions must be
taken to safeguard the participants.
For instance, the Johns Hopkins researchers, led by Roland Griffiths,
carefully screened volunteers to ensure that only psychologically
stable individuals were selected. And during the study, participants
were closely supervised and never left alone.
"They were given an opportunity for self-exploration," Dr. Johnson
explained. "They were invited to just relax and experience their
inner self while they were monitored by trained professionals in a
completely safe environment," he said.
Although psilocybin is an illicit drug, it has been used in religious
ceremonies of some cultures for centuries.
Dr. Johnson believes 60 per cent of participants had a "full mystical
experience" partly because they were in a supportive environment and
partly because they were religiously or spiritually inclined individuals.
"Many people have used magic mushrooms recreationally," he said.
"Although some have reported experiences like this, plenty of them have not."
The research lab, which was made to resemble a comfortable living
room, provided "a much more serious, introspective context compared
to what is the norm for recreational drug use," he said. "Someone
might take the same drug at a rock concert and just be completely
distracted or engulfed in the external experience."
Crucifers and cancer Previous studies have shown that men who
regularly eat broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables appear to be
at a reduced risk of developing prostate cancer.
Now, scientists at Britain's Institute of Food Research in Norwich
think they know why these veggies might guard against the disease:
They seem to alter the activity of certain cancer-related genes.
For the study, some men were assigned to eat 400 grams of broccoli a
week for 12 months, while others were asked to consume 400 grams of
peas weekly for the same time period.
As part of the research, tissue samples of the prostate gland were
collected from the men before the study began, at the six-month mark
and at 12 months.
The test results, published in the online journal PLoS One, revealed
that the men who dined frequently on broccoli had significantly more
genetic changes than those in the pea group.
"Men who ate the broccoli-rich diet had many changes in gene
expression in their prostate tissue," the lead researcher, Richard
Mithen, said in an e-mail interview. "Some of these were genes
turning on, others were genes turning off. The changes we observed
may result in either preventing normal cells turning into cancer
cells, or by causing cancer cells to die."
Dr. Mithen noted that other types of fruits and vegetables, including
tomatoes, might also help ward off prostate cancer and researchers
are still working on the best mix for maximum protection. In the
meantime, he advises, "eat five portions of fruits and vegetables per
day and try to make sure you include two or three portions of
broccoli or other cruciferous vegetables [such as cabbage,
cauliflower, bok choy] per week."
Dementia and the aged
Women over 90 are more likely to suffer from dementia than men of the
same age, according to a study by researchers at the University of
California in Irvine.
They looked at the mental condition of 911 subjects enrolled in a
study of people over 90. Their study, published in the journal
Neurology, found that 45 per cent of the women had dementia, compared
with 28 per cent of the men.
But it is still not yet clear for the ongoing study whether elderly
women are really at greater risk of mental decline than men. It could
just be that afflicted men die sooner, explained the lead researcher,
Maria Corrada. If women live longer with the disease, that would
essentially push up their prevalence rate, or how many people have
the disease at any given time.
Dr. Corrada said the researchers will have to follow the study
participants for a longer time to determine who, if anyone, is at