Vassar Quarterly - Spring/Summer 2017 - 37
Medical uses for "Magic Mushrooms"
Anne Staveley Photography / iStock Photo
hile recent attention has
been focused on the use
and legality of medical
marijuana, Dr. George
Greer '72 has long been interested in the
benefits of psychedelic drugs in treating
patients with a host of issues, from depression to alcoholism. He co-founded the Santa
Fe-based Heffter Research Institute, which
financially supported a successful medical
study on the use of psilocybin, the active
ingredient in "magic mushrooms," on
cancer patients who suffered from crippling
depression and anxiety.
The study was conducted by the Johns
Hopkins University School of Medicine and
New York University's Langone Medical
Center. Approximately 80 percent of the
90 patients in the study showed significant
improvement in their emotional and mental
health-and many retained that feeling of
well-being six months after treatment.
Stories about the study have appeared in
dozens of media outlets, including the New
York Times and the Atlantic, and the results were
published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.
The research has now become a Food and
Drug Administration Phase 3 study, which
means there will be several hundred to a
few thousand patients and the trial will take
years to complete. It's the final step before
a drug or therapy is approved or denied for
In the meantime, Greer's organization
has moved on to other studies with the same
teams at NYU and Johns Hopkins, those using
psilocybin to treat addictions to nicotine and
alcohol. Initial testing on small groups has
produced promising results, Greer says.
"The alcoholics reduced their drinking
by about two-thirds in those pilots," he says.
The next step is a larger study with 90
patients in the smoking cessation group
(45 will get psilocybin and 45 a nicotine
patch) and 180 patients in the alcoholism study
(90 will get the psilocybin). The Institute has
also funded a small pilot at the University of
Alabama in Birmingham treating cocaine
addiction with psilocybin.
Greer says it's important to note that this
type of therapy isn't for everyone. Excluded
are people with a family or personal history
of psychosis or manic episodes because the
psilocybin could aggravate those conditions.
Researchers are careful in other ways, too.
Study subjects do a great deal of work with
therapists well before any psilocybin is
administered, and the therapist is present
when the patient is given the drugs, helping
them through the experience as needed,
Greer says. Follow-up therapy is used to help
the patient talk about what they have experienced and learned.
The treatment of diseases and other
afflictions with illegal drugs has been
around for decades. Studies on psychedelic
drugs first became popular in the 1950s and
'60s-researchers were even able to get federal government funding for their studies.
The compounds were used to treat a host
of issues including depression, anxiety,
obsessive-compulsive disorder, terminal
cancer, addiction, and schizophrenia. But
such studies-especially on the effects of
LSD and psilocybin-have been under the
radar since the drugs were outlawed in the
1970s. (Their use was prohibited for any
reason after the general public gained
access to "acid" and "magic mushrooms.")
While those drugs are still illegal, the
government has made allowances for medical
research. Now Greer and his New Mexicobased organization are focusing on many
of the same ailments that researchers did
Financial support is a different matter.
Greer says organizations such as Hefftner
Research Institute fund these types of
studies because the government won't.
They're hoping that organizations like the
National Institutes of Health will begin to
conduct their own trials.
"It takes a really passionate and motivated researcher to pursue this line of research
because there is no federal funding at this
point. The Hefftner's been the only pathway
to get this research done so far. We hope that
changes," Greer says.
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