Roland Griffiths has died aged 77; He led a renaissance in psychedelic research | ET REALITY


Roland Griffiths, a professor of behavioral sciences and psychiatry whose pioneering work in the study of psychedelics helped usher in a new era of research on those once-banned substances and reintroduced the mystical into scientific discourse about them, died Monday. at his home in Baltimore. . He was 77 years old.

The cause was colon cancer, said Claudia Turnbull, an old friend.

Dr. Griffiths, a distinguished psychopharmacologist and professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, spent decades studying the mechanisms of dependence on mood-altering drugs. He published dozens of articles on opiates and cocaine, on sedatives and alcohol, on nicotine and caffeine.

His work on caffeine, which he claimed was the most commonly consumed drug in the world, was groundbreaking and showed that yes, it was addictive, that withdrawal could be painful, and that caffeine dependence was a “clinically significant disorder.”

But in August 2006 he published an article that was not only innovative; it was amazing.

The article had an unusual title: “Psilocybin May Cause Mystical-Like Experiences That Have Substantial and Sustained Personal and Spiritual Meaning.” And when appeared in the journal Psychopharmacology, caused a media stir.

“God’s Pill,” read the headline in The Economist. This was the first double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical study in decades to examine the psychological effects of a psychedelic in what scientists call “healthy normals”: healthy volunteers. Their focus was not on the drug’s beneficial properties for those suffering from depression, undergoing cancer treatment, facing end-of-life terrors, or trying to quit smoking. Those emblematic studies would come later.

This work involved trained doctors administering high doses of psilocybin (the psychoactive or mind-altering component found in the psilocybe mushroom genus) to healthy people in a controlled, living room-like environment.

Eighty percent of participants described the experience as one of the most eye-opening and spiritually significant episodes of their lives, similar to the death of a parent or the birth of a child, as Dr. Griffiths often said.

His experience had all the attributes of a mystical event. They described deep feelings of joy, love, and, yes, terror, along with a sense of interconnectedness and even an understanding of a sublime, sacred, and ultimate reality.

These positive effects on their mood and behavior lasted for months and even years, as author Michael Pollan discovered when he interviewed many of the participants for his 2018 book, “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Tells Us.” teaches about conscience.” , Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence.”

“To listen to these people describe the changes in their lives inspired by their psilocybin trips is to wonder if the Hopkins session room is not some kind of human transformation factory,” Pollan wrote.

But Dr. Griffiths’ work demonstrated that researchers could do more than induce a mystical experience in a laboratory; They could also use the tools of science (brain imaging, for example) to prospectively examine, as he put it, the nature of consciousness and religious experience.

As Charles Schuster, former director of the government’s National Institute on Drug Abuse, told the New York Times in 2006: “This study represents a milestone, because it applies modern techniques to an area of ​​human experience that dates back to the time of The humanity”. has been here.”

In a telephone interview, Pollan said, “Roland had an excellent reputation as a rigorous and conscientious scientist.”

“No one of his stature had entered this area in so long that it gave confidence to a lot of other people,” he added. “When he presented this completely bizarre study, which was so available to science, it could have been dismissed, but it wasn’t.”

Dr. Griffiths’ work, which began in 1999, was supported by the Food and Drug Administration and the Drug Enforcement Administration, as well as a group of experts that included the former second drug czar under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush. And it marked the beginning of what many have called a renaissance of psychedelic research.

“The fact that psychedelic research was being done at Hopkins, considered the leading medical center in the country, made it easier to get it approved here,” said Anthony P. Bossis, a palliative care psychologist at New York University.

He told mr pollán that Dr. Griffiths’ work had paved the way for him and his colleagues to begin using psilocybin to successfully treat anxiety in cancer patients.

Theirs was not the only institution to do so. Similar research involving cancer patients, alcoholics, smokers, and people suffering from depression began in earnest in this country and abroad after the publication of Dr. Griffiths’ article.

“It was an amazing study,” Dr. Bossis told Mr. Pollan, “with such an elegant design. And he opened the field.”

Psychedelics had been the third topic of scientific research since Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert were expelled from Harvard for doling out LSD with messianic fervor in the early 1960s. By the end of that decade, psychedelics had been declared controlled substances considered illegal for recreational and medical use.

However, beginning in the 1950s, long before Dr. Leary exhorted a generation to “turn on, tune in, and tune out,” LSD (a synthetic chemical derived from a mushroom, along with psilocybin and other psychedelics) were being studied and used successfully to treat alcoholism, depression, anxiety and distress among the terminally ill.

The term psychedelic was coined in 1956 and taken from the Greek root psyche, which translates as mind or soul. However, saddled with the baggage of 1960s counterculture, it moved from its original meaning as a mind-altering drug to an aesthetic represented in crazy typefaces and black-light posters.

Dr. Griffiths was in a position to reclaim psychedelics as a legitimate area of ​​scientific research. Like many psychology students of his generation, he had been strongly influenced by the work of B.F. Skinner, the “radical behaviorist” who disdained the focus on emotions and the unconscious that had long dominated the field and instead dwelt on the role of environment in psychology. determine or condition human behavior.

In 1994, Dr. Griffiths began meditating regularly, which led to a transformative experience that, he said“It profoundly changed my view of the world and awakened my curiosity about the nature of spiritual experiences.”

He told Mr. Pollan that the experience was so profound that he almost abandoned science to devote himself to spiritual practice. But it turned out that others were working to rehabilitate the study of psychedelics. one was Bob Jesseformer vice president of the software company Oracle, who had created a nonprofit organization to encourage research into mystical experiences and whose introduction to Dr. Griffiths became the driving force in what would soon change the direction of Dr. Griffiths and would revitalize the field.

As researchers in his laboratory and elsewhere studied the use of psilocybin in treating cancer patients, smokers, and people with depression, he began to focus on examining the mystical aspects of their experiences and probing the nature of consciousness. He came to believe that the knowledge gained from psilocybin could have profound effects on humanity, which he saw headed for disaster.

Psychedelics, he suggested, could right the ship.

“A distinguishing feature of these experiences is that we are all in this together,” he said. The chronicle of higher education in April. “It gives people the feeling that we have something in common and that we should take care of each other.”

Roland Redmond Griffiths was born on July 19, 1946 in Glen Cove, New York, the son of William and Sylvie (Redmonds) Griffiths. His father, who had trained as a psychologist, specialized in public health; His mother was a homemaker until the family moved to El Cerrito, California, around 1951, after William accepted a job as a professor of public health at the University of California, Berkeley. There, Sylvie began successfully pursuing a master’s degree in psychology.

Roland majored in psychology at Occidental College in Los Angeles and studied psychopharmacology at the University of Minnesota, where he earned his Ph.D. there in 1972. Johns Hopkins hired him immediately afterward and began focusing his research on drug use and addiction.

Dr. Griffiths is survived by his wife, Marla Weiner; his three children, Sylvie Grahan, Jennie Otis and Morgan Griffiths; five grandchildren; and his siblings, Kathy Farley and Mark Griffiths. His 1973 marriage to Kristin Ann Johnson ended in divorce, as did his marriage to Diana Hansen.

Dr. Griffiths was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer in November 2022, a finding he accepted, as he told David Marchese of The New York Times Magazine. He established a foundation at Johns Hopkins to fund psychedelic research. At his death, he was completing a paper on a study he had conducted in which clerics from a wide range of religions were given a high dose of psilocybin to see how it would affect their lives and work.

Notably, his lab’s first therapeutic study with psilocybin was with cancer patients, but Dr. Griffiths said he waited a while before using a psychedelic to research his own condition. When he did (he took LSD), he approached the session like a reporter and asked his cancer: What are you doing here? Is this going to kill me?

“The answer was,” he told Mr. Marchese, “’Yes, you will die, but everything is absolutely perfect; There is a meaning and purpose to this that is beyond your understanding, but the way you are handling it is exactly how you should handle it.’”

Long before his cancer diagnosis, Dr. Griffiths told Pollan that he hoped his own death was not sudden, that he would have time to savor it. “Western materialism says turn off the switch and that’s it,” he said. “But there are many other descriptions. It could be a start! Wouldn’t that be amazing?

Alain Delaquérière contributed to the research.

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