Weird Wednesday – Part One – First Human Head Transplant

The editor of this sucky blog1 has assigned Wednesday’s topic as Weird. Weird would include items such as you might encounter in Chuck Shepherd’s seminal News of the Weird, or on a late-night comedy show, or similar. The universe is a wild and wacky place, and not everything is beige, focus-tested, and lifeless.

Voivode of Pilsen
Voivode of Pilsen…

Anyway, a couple of days ago, I read about a doctor about to perform the first ever head transplant:

Three years ago, [Dr. Sergio] Canavero, now 51, had his own Dr. Strange moment when he announced he’d be able to do a human head transplant in a two-part procedure he dubs HEAVEN (head anastomosis venture) and Gemini (the subsequent spinal cord fusion). Valery Spiridonov, a 31-year-old Russian program manager in the software development field, soon emerged from the internet ether to volunteer his noggin. He suffers from Werdnig-Hoffman disease, a muscle-wasting disorder, and is desperate.

Canavero has a plan, delineated in a June 2013 paper in the peer-reviewed journal Surgical Neurology International and presented in 2015 as the keynote address of the American Academy of Neurological and Orthopaedic Surgeons’s 39th annual conference. It’s a 36-hour, $20 million procedure involving at least 150 people, including doctors, nurses, technicians, psychologists and virtual reality engineers.

In a specially equipped hospital suite, two surgical teams will work simultaneously—one focused on Spiridonov and the other on the donor’s body, selected from a brain-dead patient and matched with the Russian for height, build and immunotype. Both patients—anesthetized and outfitted with breathing tubes—will have their heads locked using metal pins and clamps, and electrodes will be attached to their bodies to monitor brain and heart activity.

Next, Spiridonov’s head will be nearly frozen, ultimately reaching 12 to 15 degrees Celsius, which will make him temporarily brain-dead.Doctors will then drain his brain of blood and flush it with a standard surgery solution. A vascular surgeon will loop sleeve-like tubes made of Silastic (a silicone-plastic combination) around the carotid arteries and jugular veins; these tubes will be tightened to stop blood flow and later loosened to allow circulation when the head and new body are connected. Then the two teams, working in concert, will make deep incisions around each patient’s neck and use color-coded markings to note all the muscles in both Spiridonov’s head and that of the donor, to facilitate the reconnection.

Next comes the most critical step of all. Under an operating microscope, doctors will cleanly chop through both spinal cords—with a $200,000 diamond nanoblade, so thin that it is measured in angstroms, provided by the University of Texas.

Then the rush is on: Once sliced, Spiridonov’s head will have to be attached to the donor’s body and connected to the blood flow within an hour. (When the head is transferred, the main vessels will be clamped to prevent air from causing a blockage.) Surgeons will quickly sew the arteries and veins of Spiridonov’s head to those of his new body. The donor’s blood flow will then, in theory, re-warm Spiridonov’s head to normal temperatures within minutes.

If all that goes as planned, Canavero can then make good on his Dr. Strange inspiration with Gemini. The lengths of the transected spinal cord stumps will be adjusted so they’re even, and the myelinated axons, the spaghetti-like parts of nerve cells, will be fused using a special type of glue made of polyethylene glycol, an inorganic polymer that Canavero says is the procedure’s true magical elixir.

In this way, spinal cord function will be established by enabling the cytoplasm of adjacent cells to mix together.Then it’s time to make sure the spinal fusion is secure with a few loose sutures applied around the joined cord and threaded through the thin membrane surrounding the brain and spinal cord.  

To finish securing Spiridonov’s head, the previously exposed vertebral arteries of the donor and Spiridonov will also be linked to achieve proper blood flow. In addition, the dura, the tough outermost membrane covering the brain and spinal cord, will be sewn watertight with wires and clamps. Doctors will similarly reconnect the trachea, esophagus, vagi and phrenic nerves, along with all of the severed muscles, and plastic surgeons will sew the skin for optimal cosmetic results.

Throughout, doctors will ensure a suppressed immune system through medication, and after the transplant, doctors will regularly screen Spiridonov’s blood for anti-donor antibodies while he lies in a drug-induced coma for four weeks to allow his brain to recover. During that time, doctors will electrically stimulate the spinal cord to promote communication between neurons and improve Spiridonov’s motor and sensory functions.

(click here to continue reading Doctor Ready to Perform First Human Head Transplant.)

Tall statue aka Our Onion-headed Overlords
Our Onion-headed Overlords

Doubters and naysayers don’t believe the operation will be possible, or even attempted, but science is always about exploring the edges of human knowledge, with plenty of failures along the way.

I see a few possible outcomes to the surgery.

  1. The patient dies during surgery. Dr. Canavero will learn from the experience and try again later.
  2. The surgery seems successful, but the patient never wakes up from the induced coma. Again, something can be learned from the experience, and applied to future surgeries.
  3. The patient wakes up: but who is he? The brain and human consciousness are not totally understood. Will the patient be able to wiggle his fingers? Walk? Talk? Speak Russian? Write C++ code? Did you know that the stomach contains serotonin receptors (5HT receptors)? Maybe these brain-stomach connectors are more important to consciousness than we know and the patient will retain some fragments of the other person’s body? Memories? Emotions? Who knows? 

El Ray - Giant Olmec Head
El Ray – Giant Olmec Head

The surgery is scheduled for 2017, I assume we’ll hear about the successes or failure. Will there be a Frankenstein monster? Or just another step towards Ray Kurzweil’s 2020 goals for humanity?

  1. me, though if you have some free time, I’d like to have your help, proofreading and what not []

Don’t Remove Your Appendix

Gathered forgetfulness
Gathered forgetfulness

The medical establishment is about to issue a big Ooopsie to all the people who had their appendix removed; people who were assured by their doctor that it was no big deal to live without an appendix.

There is growing evidence for the role of the appendix in restoring a healthful balance of microbes in the body. Though long considered an expendable, vestigial organ, the appendix is now being looked at as “a storehouse of good bacteria,” Dr. Dunn said. In a study of recovery rates from Clostridium difficile, which causes a severe form of infectious diarrhea, often following antibiotic therapy, patients whose appendixes had been removed were more likely to have a recurrent infection than those who still had appendixes.

(click here to continue reading Probiotic Logic vs. Gut Feelings –

I wouldn’t be surprised if the tonsils do something too, we just don’t know what yet…

Social Security History and Life Expectancy

Forget-me-not Social Security
Forget-me-not Social Security

A frequently repeated assertion by Social Security opponents is that Social Security was not designed for a population such as ours, with advances in medicine, yadda yadda.

Or as Dr. Krugman calls it, the Life Expectancy Zombie

If we look at life expectancy statistics from the 1930s we might come to the conclusion that the Social Security program was designed in such a way that people would work for many years paying in taxes, but would not live long enough to collect benefits. Life expectancy at birth in 1930 was indeed only 58 for men and 62 for women, and the retirement age was 65. But life expectancy at birth in the early decades of the 20th century was low due mainly to high infant mortality, and someone who died as a child would never have worked and paid into Social Security. A more appropriate measure is probably life expectancy after attainment of adulthood.

As Table 1 shows, the majority of Americans who made it to adulthood could expect to live to 65, and those who did live to 65 could look forward to collecting benefits for many years into the future. So we can observe that for men, for example, almost 54% of the them could expect to live to age 65 if they survived to age 21, and men who attained age 65 could expect to collect Social Security benefits for almost 13 years (and the numbers are even higher for women).

Also, it should be noted that there were already 7.8 million Americans age 65 or older in 1935 (cf. Table 2), so there was a large and growing population of people who could receive Social Security. Indeed, the actuarial estimates used by the Committee on Economic Security (CES) in designing the Social Security program projected that there would be 8.3 million Americans age 65 or older by 1940 (when monthly benefits started). So Social Security was not designed in such a way that few people would collect the benefits.

(click here to continue reading Social Security History.)

Research Points to Early Detection of Alzheimer’s

Poached Scrambled eggs in the pot
Poached Scrambled eggs in the pot

Research continues on this dread disease, so don’t draw any drastic conclusions from this one study, but interesting nonethless.

“Earlier intervention will allow us to treat patients when they have much less disability and when it could still be possible to prevent or delay such [memory] losses,” said Howard Feldman, Bristol-Myers Squibb’s vice president of global clinical research for neuroscience.

The exact causes of Alzheimer’s are still unknown, but clumps of a sticky substance called amyloid and masses of tau protein in the brain are thought to be key factors in its development. Until recently, amyloid plaques and tau tangles could be seen only in the brain upon autopsy.

But during the past decade, the identification of biomarkers—proteins and other chemicals in the brain and spinal fluid associated with amyloid and tau levels—as well as better brain-scanning technology have provided a clearer picture of Alzheimer’s in living patients and how it progresses over time.

Increasingly, the evidence suggests that amyloid, which many researchers had fingered as likely contributing to memory loss in Alzheimer’s and which has been the most popular target of experimental drugs, may be most toxic early in the disease process, before symptoms appear.

It appears to trigger a cascade that causes tau protein—which normally serves to stabilize cell structure—to break down, form tangles and kill brain cells. The tau changes, many experts now believe, are at the heart of the dementia symptoms.

In one study presented at the Paris conference, Mayo’s Dr. Jack and his colleagues examined 298 patients spanning the cognitive spectrum from normal to severe Alzheimer’s dementia over the course of a year. Using brain scans and biomarker analyses, they found little change in amyloid among patients progressing toward Alzheimer’s. But there were substantial changes in tau and brain volumes, suggesting that they change later in the course of the disease than amyloid.

(click here to continue reading Research Points to Alzheimer’s Early Toll –


Doctors and Price Transparency

I currently have a high-deductible health insurance plan, but many years of my life I had zero health insurance. If you are paying costs out of pocket1, you are much more cognizant of what every suggestion by a medical practitioner really will cost you.

Hair Dr

A recent interaction with a doctor2 included this dialog3

Doctor – you need this particular procedure, and you should do it every n months.

Patient – how much does this particular procedure cost?

Doctor – I have no idea.

Amazing. No wonder American healthcare is so expensive – there is no mechanism for reducing costs. Doctors and their staff often have no clue how much a particular procedure costs, only the insurance companies do. Wouldn’t it be nice if every hospital and doctor’s office had to publish a public rate card? Without any other change in our crazy medical system, I suspect this would drive down costs a bit.

There are a few startups who are attempting to tackle this problem:

Americans comparison-shop for items as small as groceries and as big as cars. But they rarely compare prices on their health care. When a doctor recommends a test or a procedure, most patients simply go where the doctor tells them to go. Enlarge This Image

Even if a patient does want to comparison-shop, there is no easy way to obtain complete and useful information. It is a hole in the market that some companies see as an opportunity, especially because many Americans will soon have to pay more attention to what they are paying for, rather than count on insurance to cover everything.

But there has been no easy way for consumers to shop for the best deal on a colonoscopy or blood test. A start-up financed by prominent venture capitalists and the Cleveland Clinic, Castlight Health, aims to change that by building a search engine for health care prices. Patients using Castlight could search for doctors that offer a service nearby and find out how much they will charge, depending on their insurance coverage.

A few others are starting to publish health care prices, including Thomson Reuters, a Tennessee start-up called Change:healthcare, the New Hampshire government, which created a comparison shopping tool for residents, and health insurers. Aetna, for instance, has built tools to help patients estimate prices and may build more advanced tools, said Lonny Reisman, Aetna’s chief medical officer.

(click to continue reading Bringing Comparison Shopping to the Doctor’s Office –

Several studies and pilot projects suggest that the more patients know about prices, the more money they save. A study published last month by Mercer, a human resources consulting firm, found that people on high-deductible health plans, with more exposure to the prices of doctor visits, spent less. Indiana adopted high-deductible health plans, and the average expense in 2009 for patients on one of these plans was $6,393, compared with $8,570 for patients on a more traditional health maintenance organization plan.

  1. which is still the case – my insurance only will – theoretically – pay if something catastrophic happens []
  2. not my normal doctor, but a specialist []
  3. paraphrased, but pretty accurate []

Bitter Foods and Liver Health

At the risk of over-sharing, I’ll just mention that my doctor1 suggested I add bitter foods to my diet to encourage liver health. Glancing at this list, I notice that most of these items are already part of my diet – meaning I like them – so eating more of these things won’t be a burden.

Arugula Salad

  • bitter melon
  • citrus peel
  • unsweetened chocolate
  • dandelion greens
  • escarole
  • quinine (tonic water)
  • mustard greens
  • cabbage
  • broccoli
  • cauliflower
  • turnip
  • Chinese cabbage
  • radish
  • horseradish
  • watercress
  • soy products
  • cheeses (some)
  • miso
  • kale
  • arugula
  • brussel sprouts
  • artichoke
  • grapefruit
  • zucchini
  • radicchio
  • bread
  • asparagus
  • kohlrabi

Unsweetened chocolate is on the list, though that food I’m not planning on eating much of. Also uncured olives are mentioned. You’d have to be pretty damn dedicated to eat one of those: when I was hanging out in Tuscany, the Baccis jokingly gave me a olive fresh off of an olive tree. So astringent that my mouth didn’t recover for hours, took lots and lots of good Chianti before my tongue worked again. They laughed and laughed, and I did too.

Meyer Lemons

Meyer Lemons

Not sure why bitter foods help the liver, I’ll have to look into that, but since I enjoy eating these things anyway, I don’t mind making the effort to eat more.

My blood work will be completed by next week.

  1. Dr. Andrea Rentea []

Hallucinogens Have Doctors Tuning In Again

Not surprising really, the argument against this class of entheogens being made illegal was always fairly weak, and coupled with cultural nonsense, and not scientific reality. In fact, before the rise of Reagan and Nixon and similar finger-waggers, there was a lot of very interesting research being conducted with LSD, with mescaline, with psilocybin. We blogged about this new research in 2006 too.

Shiitake mushrooms from

Scientists are taking a new look at hallucinogens, which became taboo among regulators after enthusiasts like Timothy Leary promoted them in the 1960s with the slogan “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” Now, using rigorous protocols and safeguards, scientists have won permission to study once again the drugs’ potential for treating mental problems and illuminating the nature of consciousness.

After taking the hallucinogen, Dr. Martin put on an eye mask and headphones, and lay on a couch listening to classical music as he contemplated the universe.

“All of a sudden, everything familiar started evaporating,” he recalled. “Imagine you fall off a boat out in the open ocean, and you turn around, and the boat is gone. And then the water’s gone. And then you’re gone.”

Today, more than a year later, Dr. Martin credits that six-hour experience with helping him overcome his depression and profoundly transforming his relationships with his daughter and friends. He ranks it among the most meaningful events of his life, which makes him a fairly typical member of a growing club of experimental subjects.

Researchers from around the world are gathering this week in San Jose, Calif., for the largest conference on psychedelic science held in the United States in four decades. They plan to discuss studies of psilocybin and other psychedelics for treating depression in cancer patients, obsessive-compulsive disorder, end-of-life anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction to drugs or alcohol.

[Click to continue reading Hallucinogens Have Doctors Tuning In Again –]

Johnny Depp and some psychoactive mushrooms

Let’s hope the research continues unabated, and uncoupled from the Drug War ridiculousness. If you want to read Dr. Griffiths study, it is available in PDF form at this website.

Since that study, which was published in 2008, Dr. Griffiths and his colleagues have gone on to give psilocybin to people dealing with cancer and depression, like Dr. Martin, the retired psychologist from Vancouver. Dr. Martin’s experience is fairly typical, Dr. Griffiths said: an improved outlook on life after an experience in which the boundaries between the self and others disappear.

In interviews, Dr. Martin and other subjects described their egos and bodies vanishing as they felt part of some larger state of consciousness in which their personal worries and insecurities vanished. They found themselves reviewing past relationships with lovers and relatives with a new sense of empathy.

“It was a whole personality shift for me,” Dr. Martin said. “I wasn’t any longer attached to my performance and trying to control things. I could see that the really good things in life will happen if you just show up and share your natural enthusiasms with people. You have a feeling of attunement with other people.”

The subjects’ reports mirrored so closely the accounts of religious mystical experiences, Dr. Griffiths said, that it seems likely the human brain is wired to undergo these “unitive” experiences, perhaps because of some evolutionary advantage.

“This feeling that we’re all in it together may have benefited communities by encouraging reciprocal generosity,” Dr. Griffiths said. “On the other hand, universal love isn’t always adaptive, either.”

Agribusiness Spreading Superbugs

Agribusinesses have all sorts of negative effects on our society (pollution, poor health, corruption); add superbugs to the list.

Long Cycle of Redemption

If ESBL E. coli is frightening, there are even more potent superbugs emerging, like Acinetobacter.

“We are seeing infections caused by Acinetobacter and special bacteria called KPC Klebsiella that are literally resistant to every antibiotic that is F.D.A. approved,” Dr. Spellberg said. “These are untreatable infections. This is the first time since 1936, the year that sulfa hit the market in the U.S., that we have had this problem.”

The Infectious Diseases Society of America, an organization of doctors and scientists, has been bellowing alarms. It fears that we could slip back to a world in which we’re defenseless against bacterial diseases.

There’s broad agreement that doctors themselves overprescribe antibiotics — but also that a big part of the problem is factory farms. They feed low doses of antibiotics to hogs, cattle and poultry to make them grow faster.

A study by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that in the United States, 70 percent of antibiotics are used to feed healthy livestock, with 14 percent more used to treat sick livestock. Only about 16 percent are used to treat humans and their pets, the study found.

More antibiotics are fed to livestock in North Carolina alone than are given to humans in the entire United States, according to the peer-reviewed Medical Clinics of North America. It concluded that antibiotics in livestock feed were “a major component” in the rise of antibiotic resistance.

Legislation introduced by Louise Slaughter, a New Yorker who is the only microbiologist in the House of Representatives, would curb the routine use of antibiotics in farming. The bill has 104 co-sponsors, but agribusiness interests have blocked it in committee — and the Obama administration and the Senate have dodged the issue.

[Click to continue reading Op-Ed Columnist – The Spread of Superbugs –]

FDA and Washington diddle why people die, sounds like business as usual.

Overuse of antibiotics for ear infections

Hard to argue with a crying child, but often doing nothing for in earache is just as beneficial as anti-biotics. Also, avoiding antibiotics avoids side effects, plus all the superbug -drug resistant strains – fears.

Critical Mass July 2008 with Chopper

When Latonia Best’s teenaged kids were little, doctors always prescribed antibiotics for their ear infections. But when her youngest son, 5-year-old Justin, was diagnosed with one recently, she heard something new: The pediatrician asked if she wanted to try waiting a few days to see if he would get better on his own.

Ms. Best, a mental-health aide who lives in LaGrange, N.C., opted to hold off on the drug, since her son wasn’t in pain and the doctor promised to phone in a prescription if needed. Two days later, he was fine. “I’d rather it heal itself,” says Ms. Best. She’s concerned that overuse of antibiotics will lead to powerful bacteria that resist the drugs, she says.

Ear infections are a rite of childhood, affecting more than three-quarters of kids before the age of 5. They’re also one of the most common reasons for visits to pediatricians, as parents seek relief for their crying, fussy young ones. But doctors and parents are deeply divided about how to treat them.

Current guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Family Physicians say that many patients, except the youngest and the sickest, can safely go without an antibiotic. Still, American doctors continue to prescribe the drugs very broadly for ear infections—to 84% of the kids they diagnose with them, according to a new analysis published in this month’s issue of the journal Pediatrics.

A growing number of studies have shown that most children with ear infections recover well without antibiotics, with little risk of more serious complications. Research in the journal BMJ in June even suggested that children who got antibiotics might be more likely to have recurrent infections.

[Click to continue reading When the Best Rx Is No Rx –]

Again, hard to argue with a crying child, and a worried parent, not to mention a healthcare system that rewards doctors for prescribing drugs.

Why do children get so many ear infections anyway? Is it all the milk they drink? Or why? Seems like an evolutionary flaw if such a large percentage of children consistently get infections in this orifice.

Still, some doctors say that when they explain the options to parents, many opt to wait on antibiotics.

Allan S. Lieberthal, a pediatrician at Kaiser Permanente in Los Angeles who is chairman of the current guidelines-writing effort, tells parents that the chance of a child getting better within a few days without an antibiotic is about 80%, while with the drug it is around 90%. If parents decide to hold off, he gives them a prescription that they can fill if the child has a high fever or worsening pain after 48 hours.

He also suggests they treat the pain with ibuprofen, following the current guidelines to use painkillers in children with earaches.

Reading Around on March 3rd through March 4th

A few interesting links collected March 3rd through March 4th:

  • Warnings: Going To The Doc? Be Sure You Don't Sign A Gag Order – " says it's planning on creating a "Wall of Shame" that will list all the doctors who are known to use the Medical Justice waivers—around 2,000 so far, according to Medical Justice.
    John Swapceinski, co-founder of, said that in recent months, six doctors have asked him to remove negative online comments based on patients' signed waivers. He has refused.

    "They're basically forcing the patients to choose between health care and their First Amendment rights, and I really find that repulsive," Swapceinski said."

  • Johnny "Red" Kerr: Man of pleasures and passions — – "This disclosure sparked a discussion about our shared love of music. When Red asked for some of my favorite artists, I mentioned acts as varied as Uncle Tupelo, the Clash and Alejandro Escovedo and didn't give it much more thought.

    About a week later, Red arrived at the United Center for a game with a stack of CDs in his hand.

    "Here," he said, handing them over. "I burned you a bunch of your favorite artists. I really like that Uncle Tupelo. Thanks for turning me onto them."

    He was 68 at the time."

Mushrooms Back in the Lab

If we didn’t have such a large number of idiots running our country, this would have happened decades ago.

Standard disclaimer: drugs like psilocybin (or THC, salvia, et alia) are not for everyone and not for every circumstance. Eating a handful of mushrooms is not like having a martini in a hotel bar. Just isn’t. However, there are certain places and people who can certainly benefit from the experience.

Shroom as Big As Your Head

Mushrooms take a trip back to the lab – Los Angeles Times : Resting on a hospital bed beneath a tie-dyed wall hanging, Pamela Sakuda felt a tingling sensation. Then bright colors started shimmering in her head.

She had been depressed since being diagnosed with colon cancer two years earlier, but as the experimental drug took hold, she felt the sadness sweep away from her, leaving in its wake an overpowering sense of connection to loved ones, followed by an inner calm.

“It was like an epiphany,” said Sakuda, 59, recalling the 2005 drug treatment.

Sakuda, a Long Beach software developer, was under the influence of the hallucinogen psilocybin, which she took during a UCLA study exploring the therapeutic effects of the active compound in “magic” mushrooms. Although illegal for general use, the drug has been approved for medical experiments such as this one.

Scientists suspect the hallucinogen, whose use dates back to ancient Mexico, may have properties that could improve treatments for some psychological conditions and forms of physical pain.

The medical journal Neurology in June reported on more than 20 cases in which mushroom ingestion prevented or stopped cluster headaches, a rare neurological disorder, more reliably than prescription pharmaceuticals.

In July, researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore reported that mushrooms could instill a sense of spirituality and connection, a finding that scientists said could lead to treatments for patients suffering from mental anguish or addiction.

The research has been driven in part by the success of mood-altering pharmaceuticals, such as the antidepressant Prozac, which work on the same brain chemicals and pathways.

also standard media bullshit added:

Deaths have been linked to mushroom intoxication. A Ventura County teen was killed by a car two years ago as she wandered naked across the 101 Freeway after eating mushrooms.

umm, this sounds more like death by automobile, actually. If the teen was taking the mushrooms in a better setting, they wouldn’t be wandering in a freeway. Kids shouldn’t use drugs at all, but don’t really know the entire details of this accident. Maybe the teen also had a dozen shots of tequila?

to continue:

The drug “takes your thoughts through a prism and turns them around,” Sakuda said.

Her drug trip left her with a sense of peace — a serenity she hadn’t felt since her diagnosis.

“It was like rebooting a computer,” she said.

Forty years ago, the study of hallucinogens in therapy was a mainstream endeavor. The Swiss drug company Sandoz provided pharmaceutical-grade tablets of psilocybin and various researchers explored its use as a treatment for depression and other psychological problems.

Used for centuries during spiritual ceremonies by the Mazatec Indians in southern Mexico, mushrooms helped fuel the counterculture of the 1960s. Author Carlos Castaneda, while a graduate student at UCLA, wrote of his “magical time” with a Mexican shaman who introduced him to mushrooms and other hallucinogens.

In 1970, Congress made it illegal to posses hallucinogens, including psilocybin and LSD, by classifying them as Schedule I, meaning they had no legitimate medical use.

“All research was shut down,” said UCLA psychiatrist Dr. Charles S. Grob.

In the late 1990s, regulators began approving experiments again, sparked by discoveries in neuroscience that illuminated the biochemical basis of mood and consciousness. The advances focused on the complex role of the brain chemical serotonin — a neurotransmitter that passes signals between cells.

Spread throughout the brain are a variety of receptors that respond to serotonin. In some instances, a flow of serotonin can alter moods, such as depression, euphoria, anxiety and aggression. The chemical is also believed to be involved with nausea, body temperature and appetite control.

Many hallucinogens, including psilocybin, mimic the action of serotonin on various receptors. When the drugs circulate in the brain, they can amplify, distort and cross signals. Sounds have colors, and motions become out-of-body experiences.

The drugs can trigger emotionally charged states and potentially dangerous behavior. Even the most optimistic psychedelic researchers acknowledge that at best psilocybin will become a special-purpose drug administered under tight supervision because reactions vary.

In addition to the sensory effects, hallucinogens create mental states in which patients become unusually open to suggestion, Grob said.

He wanted to test whether that ability could be used to alleviate the suffering of terminal cancer patients overcome with a sense of hopelessness.

Grob modeled his study after one conducted at Spring Grove Medical Center, a psychiatric hospital near Baltimore.

The Spring Grove patients took LSD. Grob is using psilocybin, which is shorter-acting and considered somewhat less risky. The drug is produced in small quantities under special Drug Enforcement Administration permits.

Grob has given the drug to seven terminally ill cancer patients.

In Sakuda’s case, weeks of counseling planted a desire to overcome her fears and sense of isolation. Since her diagnosis, she had avoided friends and kept her feelings bottled up.

The experiment took place in a comfortable hospital room, under the close watch of a medical team. She wore eyeshades and headphones with soft music playing.

Sakuda recalled sensing her husband’s sadness over her illness and feeling a burden lifted from her.

“It is not logical. It comes to you like that,” she said.

Sakuda died Nov. 10. Her husband, Norbert Litzinger, feels that the drug made a difference. “There was a rebirth around her and it didn’t stop.”

The power of the drug extends beyond psychological effects. Dr. John Halpern and colleagues at McLean Hospital in Boston have been looking at the ability of magic mushrooms to treat cluster headaches, which affect about 1 million Americans, mostly men.

The pain can be so severe that they are known as “suicide” headaches, occurring like clockwork at the same time each day, or the same month each year. No treatment has been shown to extend remissions from pain.

Halpern examined medical records of 48 patients who had taken hallucinogenic mushrooms and reported in Neurology that the majority of them found partial or complete relief from cluster attacks.

He speculated that the drug acts on the thalamus, a brain region populated with serotonin receptors. A clinical trial is needed to establish whether the mushrooms really work, Halpern said.

“These are not people you’d expect from the drug culture,” he said. “They are lawyers, teachers, business owners. They have a painful and debilitating condition, and found meaningful relief.”

Those who have used hallucinegenic mushrooms in the U.S. to ease their headaches are all lawbreakers.

They have become part of a new mushroom underground. Many of its denizens are like Bob Wold — a 53-year-old maintenance worker and Little League coach who had never taken hallucinogenic drugs before. He knew they could be dangerous.

Wold, who lives near Chicago, said his headaches felt like an ice pick being jammed through his eye. Once, they made him drive his fist through a plaster wall at home. Another time he pounded his head against the shower tiles so hard some of them cracked.

Seeking help, Wold stumbled across a website for cluster headache sufferers touting hallucinogenic mushrooms.

A man he met on the Internet mailed Wold 20 dried brown mushrooms. The recipe called for a very light tea, not strong enough to cause hallucinations.

After that, Wold started growing his own mushrooms.

Wold has formed an organization to fund research aimed at developing a pharmaceutical version of psilocybin.

But at home, he must make sure his crop is well hidden from his young grandchildren.

Former Washington lobbyist Stuart Miller, 49, described his secret life as a mushroom user as “bizarre.”

Miller had frequent cluster headaches and carried capsules containing ground mushrooms everywhere. As he passed through security daily on Capitol Hill, or made his way through an airport, Miller worried that a search would uncover the capsules “and my career would be gone.”

He was never caught. He has moved to Mexico to care for an aging parent.

Magic mushrooms grow wild in a nearby field.