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 Psychopharmacology.
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 controversial drugs.
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."