Roland Griffiths: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know

Roland Griffiths

Johns Hopkins Medicine/Wikimedia Commons Roland Griffths/psilocybin mushrooms

Roland Griffiths is a Johns Hopkins University professor, researcher and expert in the field of pharmacology. He is best known for his research into the beneficial effects psilocybin on cancer patients.

He began his research into psilocybin and other psychedelics when he began meditation. He is a proponent of the connection between science, spirituality and mysticism. Griffiths is continuing his psilocybin research and hopes to complete larger scale trials to produce conclusive data. Preliminary data shows promising results.

Griffiths is also the founder and director of the Johns Hopkins Center on Psychedelic and Consciousness Research. He appears on 60 Minutes in an episode that airs on CBS at 7:30 p.m. EST Sunday, October 13, 2019.

Here’s what you need to know:


1. Roland Griffiths Began Research Into Psilocybin in 1999 After Receiving FDA Approval Following a Ban Caused by the Controlled Substances Act

Studies into the effects of psilocybin predated the Controlled Substances Act, which President Richard Nixon signed into law in 1970. Psilocybin was also used as a substance for healing and spiritual connection in ancient times. The Controlled Substances Act labeled psilocybin a Schedule 1 controlled substance, meaning it has high potential for abuse and does not serve a legitimate medical purpose. Griffiths acknowledges there are risks associated with psilocybin, but his preliminary data shows that there are benefits which he believes outweigh the risks when it is used in a controlled environment.

Researchers conducted studies before the Controlled Substances Act, but their studies required further research. The law effectively prevented studies into whether psilocybin did, in fact, have any medical benefits. His research into the effects of psilocybin began in 1999 after he received FDA approval to conduct studies, he said on a TED Talk in 2015.

His profile on the Johns Hopkins Center on Psychedelic and Consciousness Research says:

In 1999 he initiated a research program investigating the effects of the classic psychedelic psilocybin that includes studies in healthy volunteers, in beginning and long-term meditators, and in religious leaders. Therapeutic studies with psilocybin include treatment of psychological distress in cancer patients, treatment of cigarette smoking cessation, and psilocybin treatment of major depression. Other studies have examined the effects of salvinorin A, dextromethorphan, and ketamine which produce altered states of consciousness having some similarities to psilocybin. Drug interaction studies and brain imaging studies (fMRI and PET) are examining pharmacological and neural mechanisms of action. The Hopkins laboratory has also conducted a series of internet survey studies characterizing various psychedelic experiences including those associated with acute and enduring adverse effects, mystical-type effects, entity and God-encounter experiences, and alleged positive changes in mental health, including decreases in depression and anxiety, decreases in substance abuse, and reductions in death anxiety.


2. Griffiths Is the Director of the Johns Hopkins Center on Psychedelic and Consciousness Research & Professor in the Departments of Psychiatry & Neurosciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine

Griffiths founded the Johns Hopkins Center on Psychedelic and Consciousness Research and continues to serve as its director. He is also a Professor in the Departments of Psychiatry and Neurosciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, according to his Johns Hopkins University profile.

“Roland Griffiths, Ph.D., is a Professor in the Departments of Psychiatry and Neurosciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and founding Director of the Johns Hopkins Center on Psychedelic and Consciousness Research,” the profile says. “His principal research focus in both clinical and preclinical laboratories has been on the behavioral and subjective effects of mood-altering drugs.”

He is also a member of the Expert Advisory Panel on Drug Dependence for the World Health Organization, and he has been a consultant to the National Institutes of Health and to pharmaceutical companies regarding the development of new psychotropic drugs. He has also conducted research into sedative-hypnotics, caffeine and other mood-altering drugs.

Griffiths has written more than 380 journal articles and book chapters, his profile says. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which he obtained in 1972, and he has a bachelor of science degree from Occidental College in California, which he earned in 1968, according to a separate Johns Hopkins University profile.


3. His Interest in the Study of Psychedelic Drugs Began With Meditation

Roland Griffiths said his interest in research into the beneficial properties of psychedelic drugs began when he started a meditation practice, he said in a 2009 interview with Mulidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies journal. He was trained as a psychopharmacologist, with training in both experimental psychology and pharmacology.

He said in the 2009 interview:

About fifteen years ago, I took up a meditation practice that opened up a spiritual window for me, and made me very curious about the nature of mystical experience and spiritual transformation. It also prompted an existential question for me about the meaningfulness of my own research program in drug abuse pharmacology. On reflecting about the history of psychopharmacology and the claims that had been made about the classical hallucinogens occasioning mystical and spiritual experience, I became intrigued about whether I could turn the direction of some of my research program toward addressing those kinds of questions. Through a confluence of interactions and introductions, I first met Robert Jesse of the Council of Spiritual Practices, and he introduced me to Bill Richards, who had a long history of working with these compounds from the 1960s and 70s. We decided that we would undertake a research project characterizing the effects of psilocybin.

His foray into meditation was a life-changing experience for him, which shifted his outlook on life, he said in a 2015 TED Talk.


4. He Conducted a TED Talk in 2015 About the Connection Between Spirituality & Science

Roland Griffiths discussed his research into the effects of psilocybin on a TED Talk in 2015, framing the discussion as a connection between science and spirituality or mysticism. You can watch the full TED Talk here.

“It’s like trying to mix oil and water. Most people assume that science and spirituality don’t play well together, but it’s not true. Einstein said that the most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. He said it’s the source of all true science,” Griffiths said.

Griffiths discussed details about his studies, which showed promising results in studies on healthy participants, cancer patients and smokers. He noted his data is preliminary and the drug must be used in a controlled environment to reduce risks. He wants to conduct large-scale trials to show more conclusive results, but those require a substantial amount of funding. His research, he said, is only the tip of the iceberg.

“Further research will surely reveal underlying biological mechanisms of action, will likely result in an array of therapeutic applications, and more importantly, because such experiences are foundationally related to our moral and our ethical understandings, further research may ultimately prove to be crucial to the very survival of our species,” he said.


5. Roland Griffiths Research Into Psilocybin Showed Promising Results for Cancer Patients, Healthy Patients & Smokers

While Roland Griffiths became most well known for his study into the effects of psilocybin on patients with life-threatening cancer and death anxiety, he started his research on healthy patients. You can read the results of his cancer trial here.

The study on cancer patients showed more than 80 percent of participants experienced positive changes in attitudes about life, self, mood, relationships and spirituality, and many of them reported it was one of the most profound experiences of their lives, comparing it to the birth of a child. Studies on healthy participants also showed promising results with participants reporting similar effects. A high number of smokers quit smoking after participating in the study, he said on his TED Talk.

While the Johns Hopkins Medicine study on the effects of psilocybin showed very promising results in treating patients suffering from depression and anxiety related to life-threatening cancer diagnoses, the study only included 51 cancer patients.

Griffiths wants to conduct a much larger study, but that would require between $20 and $40 million. Without government funding, those funds would have to come from private donors or foundations, he told SciPol, a Duke University science and technology publication.

The larger study would be considered Phase 3. Multiple sites across the country would host studies including a much larger participant pool.

“Ross, the NYU researcher, and Roland R. Griffiths, a professor of psychiatry and neurosciences at the Johns Hopkins medical school who led the study there, each said they would pursue a Phase 3 study enrolling a larger group of patients at multiple sites nationally,” the publication said. “That effort would take between $20 million and $40 million, and with government funding for a psychedelic research study unlikely, at least in the short term, that money would have to come from foundations and private donors.”

The study involving Kerry Pappas and featured on 60 Minutes October 13, 2019 was Phase 2 of the study. It was led by the Heffter Research Institute and the RiverStyx Foundation, which are both non-profit organizations.

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