“Magic mushroom” psychedelic can help heavy drinkers quit

“Magic mushroom” psychedelic can help heavy drinkers quit

“Magic mushroom” psychedelic can help heavy drinkers quit

The compound in the psychedelic mushroom helped heavy drinkers cut back or quit altogether in the most rigorous test of psilocybin for alcoholism.

More research is needed to see if the effect lasts and if it works in a larger study. Many who took a dummy drug instead of psilocybin also succeeded in drinking less, probably because all study participants were highly motivated and received talk therapy.

Psilocybin, found in several mushroom species, can cause hours of vivid hallucinations. Indigenous peoples have used it in healing rituals, and researchers are investigating whether it can relieve depression or help long-time smokers quit. It is illegal in the United States, although Oregon and several cities have decriminalized it. Starting next year, Oregon will allow supervised use by licensed facilitators.

The new research, published Wednesday in JAMA Psychiatry, is “the first modern, rigorous, controlled trial” of whether it can also help people struggling with alcoholism, said Fred Barrett, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University who was not involved in the study.

In the study, 93 patients took a capsule containing psilocybin or a dummy drug, lay on a sofa with their eyes covered and listened to recorded music through headphones. They received two such sessions one month apart and 12 sessions of talk therapy.

In the eight months following their first dosing session, patients taking psilocybin fared better than the other group, drinking heavily on about 1 in 10 days on average compared to about 1 in 4 days for the dummy pill group. Almost half who took psilocybin stopped drinking altogether compared to 24% of the control group.

Only three conventional medications—disulfiram, naltrexone, and acamprosate—are approved to treat alcohol use disorders, and there have been no new drug approvals in nearly 20 years.

Although it is not known exactly how psilocybin works in the brain, researchers believe that it increases connections and, at least temporarily, changes the way the brain organizes itself.

“Multiple parts of the brain are talking to multiple parts of the brain,” said Dr. Michael Bogenschutz, director of the NYU Langone Center for Psychedelic Medicine, who led the research.

Less is known about how long-lasting the new connections may be. In theory, combined with talk therapy, people can more easily break bad habits and adopt new attitudes.

“It’s an opportunity to really change in a relatively permanent way the functional organization of the brain,” Bogenschutz said.

Patients described life-changing insights that gave them lasting inspiration, Bogenschutz said.

Mary Beth Orr, 69, of Burien, Washington, said her psilocybin-induced hallucinations — flying over fantastical landscapes and telepathically merging with creative people throughout history — taught her she was not alone.

Before enrolling in the study in 2018, Orr had five or six drinks every night and more on the weekends.

“The amount was unacceptable and yet I couldn’t stop,” she said. “There was no off switch I could access.”

During her first psilocybin experience, she saw a vision of her late father, who gave her a pair of eagle eyes and said, “Go.” She told the therapists monitoring her, “These eagle eyes cannot see the face of God, but they know where it is.”

She stopped drinking completely for two years, and now has a glass of wine now and then. More than the talk therapy, she credits psilocybin.

“It made alcohol irrelevant and uninteresting to me,” Orr said. Now, “I’m tied to my children and loved ones in a way that only precludes the desire to be alone with alcohol.”

Patients given psilocybin had more headaches, nausea and anxiety than those given the dummy drug. One person reported suicidal thoughts during a psilocybin session.

In an experiment like this, it is important that the patients do not know or guess whether they have received the psilocybin or the dummy drug. To try to achieve this, the researchers chose a generic antihistamine with some psychoactive effects as a placebo.

Nevertheless, most patients in the study correctly guessed whether they were given psilocybin or the dummy pill.

Paul Mavis couldn’t guess. The 61-year-old from Wilton, Connecticut, was given a placebo but still stopped drinking. First, the talk therapy helped, suggesting to him that his emotional life stopped at the age of 15 when he started drinking to numb himself.

And he described a life-changing moment during a session where he took the dummy drug: He imagined the death of a loved one. Suddenly an intense, incapacitating grief overcame him.

“I cried, which is not typical for me. I was sweating. I was abandoned, he said. “When I try to reconcile this grief, for example, why do I feel this?

“Immediately I thought, ‘Drinking equals death.’ He said he hasn’t had a drink since.

Dr. Mark Willenbring, former director of treatment research at the National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, said more research is needed before psilocybin can be considered an effective adjunct to talk therapy. He noted that talking to a therapist helped both groups—those who received psilocybin and those who did not—and the added benefit of psilocybin appeared to wane over time.

“It’s tempting, absolutely,” Willenbring said. “Is more research needed? Yes. Is it ready for prime time? No.”


The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. AP is solely responsible for all content.

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