(CNN)– The psychedelic compound psilocybin, commonly known as “shrooms” or magic mushrooms, may help people struggling with alcohol dependence better control their consumption, according to a new study.
In what researchers call the first published randomized trial to examine the effects of psilocybin on any type of addiction, people who underwent two psychedelic mushroom “trips” with the help of a psychotherapist reduced “their days of heavy use.” of alcohol by 83% for eight months,” study lead author and psychiatrist Dr. Michael Bogenschutz, director of the NYU Langone Center for Psychedelic Medicine, told a news conference.
The people who participated in the studypublished Wednesday in JAMA Psychiatry, had an average of seven drinks on the days they drank, Bogenschutz said.
“I would say (psilocybin) saved my life,” study participant Jon Kostas, 32, said at the news conference. “My first AA meeting was at age 16. I was 25 when I found out about the clinical trial, and by then I was ‘treatment resistant.’ I had tried everything to no avail.”
At the end of the eight-month trial, 48% of patients who used psilocybin reported that they had completely stopped using alcohol, according to the researchers, who collected hair and nail samples to confirm withdrawal reports. This is twice as many as those who managed to abstain in the placebo group, Bogenschutz said.
“If these effects hold up in future trials, psilocybin will be a real breakthrough in the treatment of alcohol use disorder,” said Bogenschutz, a professor of psychiatry at New York University Grossman School of Medicine. He is also a paid consultant to several companies that are bringing psychedelics to market.
According to experts, the need for new treatments for alcoholism is critical. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has only approved three drugs since 1949 to treat disease and everyone has limitations, according to the studies.
However, while the treatment “appears to help a significant percentage of people,” it is not a cure-all, said Dr. David Hellerstein, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, who was not involved in the study. the investigation.
“For me, the most intriguing development (from the study) is that this is a very different type of treatment than has been traditionally used for alcohol addiction,” said Hellerstein, who researches psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression.
“Therefore, it may open new avenues for significant progress with this devastating condition.”
The old is new again
This is not the first time that science has studied the use of psychedelics for alcohol use disorder, defined today as the inability to stop drinking even if it causes physical or emotional harm to the drinker or others.
The British psychiatrist Dr Humphry Osmond began giving LSD to treatment-resistant alcoholics in the 1950s and found that 40-45% of those taking LSD were still sober after a year. Other researchers They replicated their results.
During the 1940s and early 1950s, tens of thousands of patients took LSD and other psychotropics to study their effects about cancer anxiety, alcoholism, opioid use disorder, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. Researchers began to look at psychedelics as possible”new tools to shorten psychotherapy“.
But when Harvard psychologists Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert were fired from the Harvard Psilocybin Project in 1962 after the university discovered that they had been giving their students LSD, the use of psychedelics for research began to lose its luster.
Leary began speaking publicly, encouraging young people to take LSD recreationally. He quickly became the face of the drug counterculture movement with his signature message: “Turn on, tune in, drop out.”
LSD was no longer administered solely in the relative safety of a laboratory or psychiatrist’s office, but instead began to lead to horror stories of bad “acid” trips at colleges and concerts, headlines alongside images of the anti-Vietnam protests and Woodstock attendees.
In 1966, the United States banned LSD and research projects were closed or forced underground. Then came the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, signed by President Richard Nixon.
This law classified all hallucinogens, including psilocybin, as schedule I drugsthat is, substances “with no currently accepted medical use” and with a high probability of abuse.
“Studies stop dead in their tracks,” Hellerstein said. “Now we are starting to make up for decades of lost time.”
A worrying increase in alcohol consumption
The new study involved 93 people with a diagnosed alcohol disorder who had drank heavily on at least four days in the previous month. The researchers defined binge drinking as five or more drinks a day for men and four or more drinks a day for women.
Interestingly, that’s also the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s definition of binge drinking, a problem that, according to the studiesis increasing in the country.
This is especially true in the women case, who increased their heavy drinking days by 41% at the start of the pandemic. More young people are also drinking alone, which can greatly increase the risk of developing an alcohol use disorder later in life, according to a July 2022 study.
In the new study, a group of 48 people received two doses of psilocybin one month apart. A second group of 45 people received a placebo twice, diphenhydramine, a common antihistamine that is also a strong sedative. Each treatment session was performed in the presence of a therapist to help process and integrate thoughts or emotions over a two-day period.
Each person also underwent a 12-week series of psychotherapy sessions that included motivational and cognitive-behavioral techniques aimed at reducing alcohol use.
“Psychotherapy was an integral part of the treatment model, so we can’t make any claims about what psilocybin would be doing in terms of therapeutic effects without that psychotherapeutic platform,” Bogenschutz said.
In fact, the placebo group reduced their binge drinking by 51% with the therapeutic intervention alone, according to the study, compared to an 83% reduction in those who received both psilocybin and therapy.
However, the study wasn’t really blinded: About 95% of the participants correctly guessed whether they were taking psilocybin or an antihistamine, the researchers said.
This is a problem, Hellerstein said, because people in such studies have a strong expectation that a “trip on a psychedelic will help them, so it’s very difficult to separate the effects of the medication from the expectation of improvement.” important”.
Consequently, it can be challenging “to show that the psychedelic experience and the treatment are the cause of the enhancement,” Hellerstein added.
One of the study participants, Paul Mavis, 60, of Wilton, Connecticut, was able to stop drinking despite being in the placebo group.
Mavis attributes that success to the intensive therapy she received during the study. “I haven’t drank, I haven’t even had cravings, it’s weird. It’s like I haven’t drank in my life,” Mavis told a news conference about the investigation.
Mavis said that she did take a dose of psilocybin, under supervision, towards the end of the study.
“It was a profound, profoundly moving, mind-altering but very, very rare experience,” Mavis said, adding that she wouldn’t rush into repeating it, especially without the help of a therapist.
“No, this was something very profound that should be done under serious supervision, IMHO,” he said.
As Mavis pointed out, the level of psychotherapy used in the study was intensive, which is common in hallucinogen studies. According to Hellerstein, future research should study whether similar results can be achieved with less therapy to make the intervention more scalable.
“Time-intensive, expert psychotherapy is often not available in many places and settings,” he said. “If the psilocybin trip alone leads to decreased alcohol consumption, with very minimal psychotherapeutic support, that might make it possible to extend the treatment much more widely.”