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Key points psilocybin alcoholism study:
- A two dose of high potency psilocybin combined with psychotherapy reduced heavy drinking days among alcoholics by 83%
- Study’s results adds to a long history of research into psychedelics’ role and efficacy in the treatment of mental and mood disorders
- More recent studies point to key role for psychedelics in curing alcohol use disorders
Psilocybin consumption with therapy curbs alcohol cravings
A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Psychiatry shows that two doses of high potency psilocybin (a.k.a magic mushrooms), taken in combination with psychotherapy, curbs heavy drinking days among alcoholics by 83% compared with active placebo and psychotherapy.
According to the study:
”participants were offered 12 weeks of manualized psychotherapy and were randomly assigned to receive psilocybin vs diphenhydramine during 2 day-long medication sessions at weeks 4 and 8. Outcomes were assessed over the 32-week double-blind period following the first dose of study medication. The study was conducted at 2 academic centers in the US. Participants were recruited from the community between March 12, 2014, and March 19, 2020. Adults aged 25 to 65 years with a DSM-IV diagnosis of alcohol dependence and at least 4 heavy drinking days during the 30 days prior to screening were included. Exclusion criteria included major psychiatric and drug use disorders, hallucinogen use, medical conditions that contraindicated the study medications, use of exclusionary medications, and current treatment for AUD.”
By the end of the trial, nearly half of the participants receiving psilocybin had stopped drinking completely.
The researchers say results are promising for the millions of people suffering from alcoholism.
Psychedelics and regulation
Although most psychedelic compounds like psilocybin, such as ecstasy, remain illegal in most countries around the world, some countries are slowly opening up to psychedelic research in an attempt to halt the alarming increase seen in rates of depression and anxiety disorders among the developed world.
How can psychedics help stem alcoholism and other mental illnesses?
This study is just one of the latest in a long body of research involving the use of psychedelics to treat a range of mental diseases ranging including anxiety disorders, feelings of dread and anxiety associated with cancer, alcohol use disorder and schizophrenia.
Starting in the 50s and 60s the use of psychedelics in the field of psychiatric research has led to some insights to their benefit in the treatment of alcohol use disorder, anxiety and other mood disorders. Even Hollywood stars such as Cary Grant started using LSD as part of psychotherapy according to this article in The Guardian.
Backlash against the hippie counterculture prompted the government of the United States to ban the use, manufacture and sale of these substances eventually.
Many of the studies in those days and studies done since however, lead to a common denominator: the ability of psychedelics to ”rewire” the brain.
The process by which they do that is called neuroplasticity. Your brain is made up of neurons which communicate via dendrites (a bit like branches in a tree). Psychedelics can stimulate the sprouting of new dendrites in the brain, which help increase communication between cells. (This is different from neurogenesis, in which entirely new neurons are formed!)
By increasing this communication, dendrites can help build and solidify new circuits from existing cells in the brain. This enables us for example to lay down more positive pathways in the brain as we use more healthy coping mechanisms like practicing gratefulness.
Using psychotherapy to empower yourself by using healthier coping mechanisms during negative events is a key part of what makes the combination of psychotherapy so much better then medication alone: it can make it much easier for a person to form healthy, positive pathways in their brain circuitry.
Ketamine as a treatment for alcoholism
Psilocybin is not the first psychedelic compound enrolled in trials pertaining to alcoholism.
One of the most populair and relatively recent ”psychedelic” treatments for mood disorders is ketamiini.
Originally synthesized as an anesthetic, ketamine’s psychedelic properties were quickly noticed by doctors. Since then it has been used illicitly as a party drug, or an alternative treatment for depression by a small community of psychotherapists. A 2000 study confirmed that ketamine has fast acting antidepressant properties and in 2019 the Food and Drug Administration approved an esketamine nasal spray for use in treating depression.
More recently, a 2022 study with a similar setup as the current psilocybin study, examined the effects of ketamine administration with psychotherapy compared to psychotherapy alone in treating alcoholism.
The study results were encouraging: after a 6-month follow-up there were significantly more alcohol abstinent days in the ketamine plus psychotherapy group compared to the placebo and therapy group.
The psilocybin study’s lead investigator: Dr. Michael Bogenschutz, director at NYU Langone Center for Psychedelic Medicine, calls the results exciting.
“Alcohol use disorder is a serious public health problem, and the effects of currently available treatments and medications tend to be small.”
So perhaps the cure for alcoholism lies in the realm of psychedelics.