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."
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 greater risk.