‘Magic mushroom’ may help psychedelic heavy drinkers

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The compound in the psychedelic mushroom helped heavy drinkers to cut back or quit altogether, psilocybin’s most rigorous test for alcohol.

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

Psilocybin, found in many species of mushrooms, can cause vivid hallucinations for several hours. Indigenous peoples have used it in healing rituals and scientists are exploring whether it can ease depression or help longtime smokers quit. It is illegal in the US, although Oregon and several cities have decriminalized it. Starting next year, Oregon will allow its supervised use by licensed facilitators.

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

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

During the eight months following their first dosing session, patients taking psilocybin fared better than the other group, drinking heavily on average about 1 in 10 days versus about 1 in 4 days for the dummy pill group. About half of those taking psilocybin stopped drinking completely, compared to 24% of the control group.

Only three conventional drugs — disulfiram, naltrexone and acamprosate — are approved for the treatment of alcohol use disorder and no new drugs have been approved in nearly 20 years.

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

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

Little is known about how permanent those new connections may be. In theory, with talk therapy, people may be able to break bad habits and adopt new perspectives more easily.

“The functional organization of the brain is likely to actually shift in a relatively permanent way,” Bogenschutz said.

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

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

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

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

During her first psilocybin experience, she saw a vision of her late father, who gave her a pair of eagles and said, “Go.” He told the physicians watching over him: “These eagles’ eyes cannot see the face of God, but they know where it is.”

She stopped drinking completely for two years, and now she drinks occasionally. More than talk therapy, she credits psilocybin.

“It made alcohol irrelevant and uninteresting to me,” Orr said. Now, “I am attached to my children and my loved ones in a way that inhibits the urge to be alone with alcohol.”

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

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

Still, most patients in the study correctly guessed whether they received psilocybin or a dummy pill.

Paul Mavis couldn’t guess. A 61-year-old man from Wilton, Connecticut, got a placebo, but still gave up drinking. For one thing, talk therapy helped him by suggesting that his emotional life came to a halt at age 15 when he started drinking alcohol only to feel numb.

And he described a life-changing moment during a session where he was taking counterfeit medication: He imagined the death of a loved one. Suddenly, an intense, disabling grief overtook him.

“I was crying, which isn’t typical for me. I was sweating. I was lost,” he said. “As I’m trying to reconcile the grief, like, why am I feeling this way? am?

“Immediately, I thought, ‘Drinking is the equivalent of death.'” He said he hadn’t drunk since.

Former director of treatment research at the National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Dr. Mark Willenbring said more research is needed before psilocybin can be considered an effective addition to talk therapy. He said talking with a physician helped both groups — those who got psilocybin and those who didn’t — and that the added benefit of psilocybin appeared to diminish over time.

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

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

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