Psilocybin mushrooms are one of five powerful psychedilics that treat mental disorders and change human consciousness. They have long been studied for their spiritual effects. In 2006, Johns Hopkins University studied psilocybin in particular and found that one-third of all participants reported that the experience was the single most spiritually significant moment of their lives and more than two-thirds reported it was among the top five most spiritually significant experiences. Two months after the study, 79% of the participants reported increased well-being or satisfaction; friends, relatives, and associates confirmed this.
While the psychedelic state has been previously compared with dreaming, the opposite effect has been observed in the brain network from which we get our sense of “self” (called the default-mode network or ego-system). Put simply, while activity became “louder” in the emotion system, it became more disjointed and so “quieter” in the ego system.
One study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2012, revealed decreases in brain activity after injection of psilocybin that were localized to the default-mode network.
For the first time, 30 patients in Melbourne's St Vincent's Hospital trial will be treated with psilocybin this spring after a year-long battle to have the study approved by the ethics committee, as well as state and federal authorities.
Patients will be given a single dose of the psychedelic drug, which stimulates feelings of euphoria and is believed to be able to ease anxiety, fear and depression for up to six months.
Applicants will be screened, requiring a state government permit to take the medication, and will be closely monitored by two clinicians on the 'dose day' while the initial high wears-off.
"With therapists in the room providing therapy it will allow people to have a heightened awareness of their situation, see the problem and work through it," Mark Bowie, director of Palliative Medicine at St Vincent Hospital, said.
St Vincent's clinical psychologist Dr Margaret Ross said patients in the study will be given a single dose of the drug in capsule form.
A similar trial conducted at New York University found 70 per cent of patients later reflected on the psilocybin experience as one of the top five most spiritually significant experiences of their entire lives, while 87 per cent reported increased life satisfaction overall.
Vice President of Australia's Psychedelic Research In Science and Medicine Association Dr Stephen Bright told 9News that the study "sets a precedent" for more research into the medical application of psychoactive substances.
"I think it's fantastic this study has been able to obtain the requisite approval, there have been multiple attempts to use psychedelics which have all been knocked back," Dr Bright said.
"The fact that this has been able to secure approval is very encouraging."
Dr Bright, also a senior lecturer at Edith Cowen university, is currently attempting to secure funding and ethics approval for another study on the potential of MDMA to be used in the treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
A spokeswoman for Palliative Care Australia stated anxiety is a common and distressing symptom for those entering the final stage of their life.
"This can be triggered by concerns and fears about how they will die, how their families and loved ones will cope as well as existential or spiritual concerns," the spokeswoman said.