Scientists experiment with mushrooms
Banned hallucinogens may have medical benefits, but results are unpredictable.
By Denise Gellene, Times Staff Writer
7:57 PM PST, November 18, 2006
Resting on a hospital bed beneath a tie-dyed wall hanging, Pamela Sakuda felt a tingling sensation. Then bright colors started shimmering in her head.
She had been depressed since being diagnosed with colon cancer two years earlier, but as the experimental drug took hold, she felt the sadness sweep away from her, leaving in its wake an overpowering sense of connection to loved ones, followed by an inner calm.
"It was like an epiphany," said Sakuda, 59, recalling the 2005 drug treatment.
Sakuda, a Long Beach software developer, was under the influence of the illegal hallucinogen psilocybin, which she took during a UCLA study exploring the therapeutic effects of the active compound in "magic" mushrooms.
Scientists suspect the hallucinogen, whose use dates back to ancient Mexico, may have properties that could lead to improved treatments for some psychological conditions and forms of physical pain.
Long dismissed as medically useless, the banned mushrooms -- a staple of the psychedelic 1960s -- are taking a long, strange trip back to the laboratory.
The medical journal Neurology in June reported on more than 20 cases in which mushroom ingestion prevented or stopped cluster headaches, a rare neurological disorder, more reliably than prescription pharmaceuticals.
In July, researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore reported that mushrooms could impart a lasting sense of spirituality and connection, a finding that scientists said could lead to treatments for patients suffering from mental anguish or addiction.
The research has been driven in part by the success of mood-altering pharmaceuticals, such as the antidepressant Prozac, which work on the same brain chemicals and pathways.
Nothing scientists have learned so far indicates that recreational use of mushrooms is safe. The psychological effects remain unpredictable. Deaths have been linked to mushroom intoxication. A Ventura County teen was killed by a car two years ago as she wandered naked across the 101 Freeway after eating mushrooms.
Even under the highly controlled conditions of a clinical trial some patients have had terrifying experiences marked by anxiety and paranoia; two people in the Johns Hopkins study likened the experience to being in a war.
The drug "takes your thoughts through a prism and turns them around," Sakuda said.
Her drug trip left her with a lasting sense of peace -- a serenity she hadn't felt since her diagnosis.
"It was like rebooting a computer," she said.
Forty years ago, the study of hallucinogens in therapy was a mainstream endeavor. The Swiss drug company Sandoz provided pharmaceutical-grade tablets of psilocybin and various researchers explored its use as a treatment for depression and other psychological problems.
Used for centuries during spiritual ceremonies by the Mazatec Indians in southern Mexico, mushrooms helped fuel the counterculture of the 1960s. Author Carlos Castaneda, while a graduate student at UCLA, wrote of his "magical time" with a Mexican shaman who introduced him to mushrooms and other hallucinogens.
The mushrooms still figure in religious rituals in Mexico and can be found growing wild in many parts of the world.
In 1970, Congress made it illegal to posses the hallucinogens, including psilocybin and LSD, by classifying them as Schedule I, meaning they had no legitimate medical use.
"All research was shut down," said UCLA psychiatrist Dr. Charles S. Grob.
In the late 1990s, regulators began approving experiments again, sparked by discoveries in neuroscience that illuminated the biochemical basis of mood and consciousness. The advances focused on the complex roles of the brain chemical serotonin -- a neurotransmitter that passes signals between cells throughout the brain.
Spread throughout the brain are a variety of receptors that respond to serotonin. In some instances, a flow of serotonin can alter moods, such as depression, euphoria, anxiety and aggression. The chemical is also believed to be involved with nausea, body temperature and appetite control.
Many hallucinogens, including psilocybin, mimic the action of serotonin on various receptors. When the drugs circulate in the brain, they can amplify, distort and cross signals. Sounds have colors, and motions become out-of-body experiences.
The drugs can trigger emotionally charged states and potentially dangerous behaviors. Even the most optimistic psychedelic researchers acknowledge that at best psilocybin will become a special-purpose drug administered under tight supervision because reactions vary from person to person, and from one occasion to the next.
In addition to the sensory effects, hallucinogens create mental states in which patients become unusually open to suggestion, Grob said.
He wanted to test whether that ability could be used to alleviate the suffering of terminal cancer patients overcome with a sense of hopelessness.
Grob modeled his study after one conducted at Spring Grove Medical Center, a psychiatric hospital near Baltimore.
The Spring Grove patients took LSD. Grob is using psilocybin, which is shorter acting and considered somewhat less risky. The drug is produced in small quantities under special Drug Enforcement Administration permits.
So far, Grob has given the drug to seven terminally ill cancer patients. In Sakuda's case, weeks of counseling planted a specific desire to overcome her fears and sense of isolation. Since her diagnosis, she avoided friends and kept her feelings bottled up.
The experiment took place in a comfortable hospital room, under the close watch of a medical team. She wore eyeshades and headphones, which played soft music. A vase of flowers was next to her bed.
Sakuda recalled sensing her husband's sadness over her illness and feeling a burden lifted from her.
"It is not linear. It is not logical. It comes to you like that," she said.
Sakuda died Nov. 10. Her husband, Norbert Litzinger, said the drug made a difference. "There was a rebirth around her, and it didn't stop."
The power of the drugs extends beyond psychological effects. Dr. John Halpern and colleagues at McLean Hospital in Boston have been looking at ability of magic mushrooms to treat cluster headaches, which affect about 1 million Americans, mostly men.
The pain can be so severe the headaches are known as "suicide" headaches, occurring like clockwork at the same time each day, or the same month each year. No treatment has been shown to extend remissions from pain.
Halpern examined medical records of 48 patients who had taken hallucinogenic mushrooms and reported in Neurology that the majority of them found partial or complete relief from cluster attacks.
He speculated that the drug acts on the thalamus, a brain region populated with serotonin receptors. A clinical trial is needed to reveal if the mushrooms really work, Halpern said.
"These are not people you'd expect from the drug culture," he said. "They are lawyers, teachers, business owners. They have a painful and debilitating condition, and found meaningful relief."
They are also -- with the exception of the few who are enrolled in controlled medical experiments -- all lawbreakers.
They have become part of a new mushroom underground. Many of its denizens are like Bob Wold -- a 53-year-old maintenance worker and little league coach who had never taken hallucinogenic drugs before. He knew they could be dangerous.
Wold, who lives near Chicago, said his headaches felt like an ice pick jammed through his eye.
Once, they made him drive his fist through a plaster wall at home. Another time he pounded his head against the shower tiles so hard some of them cracked.
Seeking help, Wold stumbled across a website for cluster headache sufferers touting hallucinogenic mushrooms.
A man he met on the Internet mailed Wold 20 dried brown mushrooms. The recipe called for a very light tea, not strong enough to cause hallucinations.
After that, Wold started growing his own mushrooms in canning jars. To maintain his supply, he saved spores to plant another crop.
Wold could have just mail-ordered the spores, which are illegal to possess in California but fall into a gray area in most states.
Wold is so convinced the mushrooms work that he has formed an organization called Clusterbusters to fund psilocybin research aimed at developing a pharmaceutical version of the banned drug.
But at home, he must be careful, making sure his crop is well hidden from his young grandchildren, who live nearby and frequently romp through the house.
Former Washington lobbyist Stuart Miller, 49, described his secret life as a mushroom user as "bizarre."
Miller had frequent cluster headaches and carried capsules containing ground mushrooms everywhere.
As he passed through security daily on Capitol Hill, or made his way through an airport, Miller worried a search would uncover the capsule "and my career would be gone."
He was never caught. Since then, he has moved to Mexico to care for an aging parent.
Magic mushrooms grow wild on a nearby field.