University of Minnesota Alumni Association


Expanding Our Minds

Once dismissed as part of hippie culture, the psychoactive drug psilocybin may offer exciting new avenues for treating intractable problems, says alumnus Roland Griffiths.

Griffiths has dedicated more than two decades to analyzing and studying psilocybin.

When Roland Griffiths first told his academic colleagues about the area of research he’d like to focus on for the rest of his career, he faced a mix of disbelief, scorn, and perhaps only grudging acceptance. It’s understandable: Griffiths (Ph.D. ’72) wanted to learn about psilocybin, the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms,” a notorious drug that made its mark in the 1960s, and that remains highly marginalized today within American pharmacology, mainly due to its illegal Schedule 1 status.

“Many drugs [have been] demonized by politicians and the press,” Griffiths says, “but there were incredibly promising studies pre-Nixon on how psilocybin could affect humans in a positive way.”

Griffiths has dedicated more than two decades to analyzing and studying this mind-expanding compound, a relatively new focus in academia with regard to treatment of trauma, among other areas. Last year he was named the director of the new Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore, launched with a private donation of $17 million.

This center will expand on what Griffiths has already accomplished as a professor of behavioral biology in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and the Department of Neuroscience at Johns Hopkins. Since 1999, he has researched how psilocybin can alter moods, invoke spiritual experiences, treat mental distress within cancer patients, and even help smokers flick away their cigarettes for good. (The U of M also conducts research in similar areas through its Nielson Lab, run by Jessica Nielson, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and the Institute for Health Informatics. The lab studies neuropsychiatric disorders, including psychedelic neuroscience research.)

Griffiths says his area of research has the potential to change lives for the better.

“A real jaw-dropper for me with this research is learning from some patients that their interaction with psilocybin in our lab was the most meaningful experience in their lives,” Griffiths says. “They also attribute psilocybin use to long-lasting positive changes in their lives, which seemed improbable to me based on everything I knew about pharmacology.”

John Hopkins Magazine interviewed one of Griffiths’ patients, a cancer sufferer in Portland, who revealed how taking a low dose of psilocybin left him feeling like a child discovering a new place, brimming with curiosity and wonder. The man didn’t hallucinate or hear voices talking to him but instead, recognized he wouldn’t be the same ever again. He told the magazine, “My approach to life used to be very cerebral. Now I come from a place of mindfulness.”

Being mindful of one’s own life actually led Griffiths down this path to study the magic in a certain type of mushroom. When he was finishing his doctorate in psychology and pharmacology at the U of M, he tried meditating for the first time. “I didn’t really take to it then, but 20 years later, I tried it again, and it opened my eyes to a wide range of experiences we can bring out in us.”

Meditation began shifting his perspective on varied states of consciousness, and later on in his career, Griffiths later would lead a double-blind study on the effects of psilocybin. Since that seminal study, which found psilocybin experiences had been life-altering for two-thirds of the participants, Griffiths has become one of the leading authorities in the world on the therapeutic benefits of this compound.

Despite growing up in the Bay Area in the late 1960s, Griffiths didn’t subscribe to the hippie movement and didn’t actually dabble in drugs himself, he says. Instead, he threw himself into subjects like physics before eventually realizing “Math and physics weren’t as intriguing to me as psychology.”

He began focusing on psychopharmacology while at Occidental College in L.A., class of ’68, but the University of Minnesota attracted him when he decided to earn his Ph.D. Griffiths has a long relationship with the U of M, even before he attended: His parents were both graduate students and met as neighbors at a boarding house on University Avenue. His father’s time at the U of M as a grad student in the psychology department was cut short when he was deployed overseas during World War II, only later returning to earn his psychology Ph.D. from the School of Public Health in 1951.

Although it wasn’t the deciding factor in his decision to head back to Minnesota, Griffiths says he appreciates how storied the school’s psychology department has been over the years—most notably with B.F. Skinner teaching at U of M in 1936, where he also wrote The Behavior of Organisms.

After his time at the University, Griffiths headed to Baltimore to join John Hopkins as an associate professor of behavioral biology, eventually becoming a full professor in 1987. He has authored hundreds of studies on drug-taking behavior, ranging from nicotine users to meth abuse to caffeine withdrawal.

His studies often conclude there is hidden potential within psilocybin we’re only just beginning to realize. One of his research projects, for example, found that in the 15 volunteer cigarette smokers who tried psilocybin, 80 percent of them abstained from cigarettes for at least 6 months. “We think the brain rewires itself in some way after taking this compound,” Griffiths explains, “and it may give people increased psychological flexibility, so much so they can tolerate discomfort and develop more self-efficacy.”

Griffiths points out his main study focus still does carry real risks. “We know that ingestion of psilocybin mushrooms can result in serious adverse effects, including engaging in dangerous behavior out of panic or confusion,” he says.

In the future, Griffiths hopes to study how psilocybin may combat depression among individuals with Alzheimer’s, and his team will also coordinate research around psilocybin’s influence on those addicted to opiates and OCD sufferers.

David Silverberg is a freelance writer in Toronto.

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