A group of healthy well educated volunteers appear to have achieved some sort of profound mystical experience that led to behaviour changes lasting for weeks after taking a drug derived from 'magic mushrooms'.
Magic mushrooms have been used by Native Americans and other groups in religious practices for centuries, to induce a mystical experience and became famous in the 60's when hippies used them to alter consciousness.
Psilocybin, like LSD or mescaline, is one of a class of drugs called hallucinogens or psychedelics and is derived from the mushrooms.
In a study led by professor Roland Griffiths at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, volunteers were given capsules of psilocybin and more than 60 percent of the group had what is described as a "full mystical experience."
The participants had an average age of 46, and had never used hallucinogens before.
Griffiths who is a professor of neuroscience and psychiatry and behavioral biology says many of the volunteers in one way or another, reported a direct, personal experience of the 'beyond'.
A third of the group said the experience was the single most spiritually significant of their lifetimes and many compared it to the birth of their first child or the death of a parent.
More significantly the effects lingered and two months later 79 percent of the volunteers reported a moderately or greatly increased well-being or life satisfaction.
Professor Griffiths believes the drug might be used to treat addiction as well as severe pain or depression.
For the study Griffiths and his team tested the drug purposely on people who had active spiritual lives, with the notion that spiritual people would be less troubled by the drug's effects.
It was important to Griffiths that the research with psilocybin was conducted in a rigorous, and systematic manner under carefully monitored conditions, to avoid any comparison with the antics of Dr. Timothy Leary, the former Harvard University psychologist best known for his 1960s experiments with LSD in the 1960s.
Griffiths says even with tightly controlled conditions to minimize adverse effects, about a third of subjects reported significant fear, and some also reported transient feelings of paranoia and under unmonitored conditions such emotions could easily escalate to panic and dangerous behavior.
Psilocybin is a nontoxic and non-addictive and acts in the same manner as serotonin on brain cells which is linked with mood.
To guarantee that people did not imagine their experiences, each volunteer received either psilocybin or methylphenidate, a stimulant used for treating attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Each were given psilocybin during one visit to the lab and the stimulant methylphenidate better known as Ritalin on one or two other visits.
Only six of the volunteers knew when they were getting psilocybin.
Each visit lasted eight hours with the volunteers resting on a couch in a lounge room setting, wearing an eye mask and listening to classical music.
They were encouraged to focus their attention inward.
Most reported an experience which included among other things, a sense of pure awareness and a merging with ultimate reality, a transcendence of time and space, a feeling of sacredness or awe, and deeply felt positive moods such as joy, peace and love.
Griffiths says many were unable to find words to express the depth of the feeling.
Most volunteers said the experience had changed them in beneficial ways, such as making them more compassionate, loving, optimistic and patient and family members and friends supported this view.
Psilocybin is derived from several species of mushrooms native to the Americas and under U.S. law it is a Schedule I hallucinogenic substance, comparable with drugs such as heroin.
The drug has approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, to be used in medical experiments and is currently being tested by a team in California on patients with end-stage cancer to test its efficacy in reducing anxiety, depression and physical pain, and improving the quality of life in such patients.
The study is seen by many as a landmark as it is one of only a few rigorous examinations of the effects of an hallucinogen and may provide a way to study what happens in the brain during intense spiritual experiences.
The study was partly funded by the U.S. Government and published online in the journal Psychopharmacology.