People struggling to give up boozing can try tripping their way out of the habit, according to a new study.
The psychoactive compound in magic mushrooms can help heavy drinkers cut back on or quit the habit altogether, a new study reports. During the study, heavy drinkers who were participating in the experiment and received an experimental dose were able to substantially reduce their alcohol intake or even cut it out altogether. Participants who received a placebo also managed to reduce their intake of alcohol during the study but to a much lesser extent; the team believes this was due to all participants being highly motivated and receiving talk therapy throughout the study period.
Such findings come to flesh out our understanding of how psilocybin, the main active substance in these fungi, can be employed in therapeutic settings. More research is needed to establish whether this effect would last over time and whether the results can be replicated in a larger study.
Hair of the shroom
Psilocybin, a compound found in several species of mushrooms, is meant to provide the fungi some measure of protection against animals looking to eat them. In insects, for example, psilocybin seems to lead to a reduction in appetite. But in the human body, it does something completely different. Here, the biologically-inactive precursor is quickly converted into psilocin, which is a very powerful psychedelic. Depending on the ingested dose, this can lead to users experiencing several hours of vivid hallucinations.
Due to this psychoactive effect, mushrooms containing psilocybin have been used both ritualistically and then recreationally since ancient times. Now, the new study showcases that they also have value when being used therapeutically in helping people deal with addictions or depression. Despite the findings, magic mushrooms are still illegal in many parts of the world, so it will probably be quite some time before they’re available in pharmacies.
That being said, this new study is the first controlled trial looking into whether psilocybin can help people struggling with alcohol abuse. For the trial, 93 patients were given a capsule containing either psilocybin (experimental condition) or a dummy medicine (control condition), and were then asked to lay on a couch with their eyes covered while listening to music via a pair of headphones. Each participant participated in two sessions one month apart, and 12 sessions of talk therapy, over the experiment’s duration.
Eight months after taking their first dose, patients in the experimental group showed lower rates of alcohol consumption, drinking heavily on roughly 1-in-10 days vs. 1-in-4 days seen in those in the control group. Almost half of the participants in the experimental group gave up drinking entirely, compared to 24% from the control group.
The study could not determine exactly how psilocybin works in the brain to influence addictions, or why. However, the team believes that it increases the density of connections between neurons and changes the way our brains organize themselves.
“More parts of the brain are talking to more parts of the brain,” said Dr. Michael Bogenschutz, director of the NYU Langone Center for Psychedelic Medicine, who led the research. “There’s a possibility of really shifting in a relatively permanent way the functional organization of the brain”.
How long this reorganization lasts in the brain, however, is not yet known. But the team explains that in combination with talk therapy, the use of psilocybin could, in theory, help people give up bad habits or adopt new ones more easily.
Less is known about how enduring those new connections might be. In theory, combined with talk therapy, people might be able to break bad habits and adopt new attitudes more easily.
The paper “Percentage of Heavy Drinking Days Following Psilocybin-Assisted Psychotherapy vs Placebo in the Treatment of Adult Patients With Alcohol Use Disorder A Randomized Clinical Trial” has been published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.