New Study Will Explore Psilocybin as a Treatment To Stop Smoking

An upcoming study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University will explore psilocybin as a treatment to help people quit smoking.
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Researchers affiliated with Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore are planning to find out if psilocybin can help people quit smoking with a randomized controlled trial expected to start later this year. The study, which is being funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), continues the research into the potential of the psychoactive compound in magic mushrooms to help people with mental health conditions including depression, anxiety, and addiction.

The new study will explore whether psilocybin can help people who are addicted to tobacco. Researchers at Johns Hopkins will lead the trial, which will be conducted in collaboration with scientists at NYU Langone Health and the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Few Succeed Quitting Smoking

Quitting smoking can be an extremely difficult undertaking, with fewer than 1 in 10 smokers who attempt to quit succeeding each year, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Matthew Johnson, a psychedelic researcher at Johns Hopkins Medicine who is leading the randomized controlled trial, said that he decided to explore psilocybin’s potential as an aid to quit smoking because few treatment options have been highly effective at helping people control tobacco addiction.

“There’s several existing treatments, both medications and other therapies, but they all have lots of room for improvement,” Johnson told NBC News. “None of the medications help a majority of the people long-term. Even six months down the road, it’s pretty small success rates.”

Psilocybin has shown some promise as an aid in smoking cessation. In a small pilot study, Johnson and his team of researchers found that psilocybin helped 10 out of 15 participants quit smoking for at least one year.

The new study beginning later this year will be the first psychedelics research funded by a grant from the NIH in more than 50 years. The lack of federal funding has been a challenge for researchers eager to study the therapeutic potential of the drugs.

“The fact that the NIH is now interested in these types of studies is a great thing,” said Dr. Charles Nemeroff, chair of the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin, who is not involved in the Johns Hopkins study. “It’ll provide us with funding to be able to do these controlled studies.”

New Double-Blind Randomized Trial

To complete the double-blind, randomized clinical trial, 66 participants will take two doses of either psilocybin or niacin, which will be administered in conjunction with talk therapy. Participants in both groups will receive the compounds in two sessions one week apart, and efforts to quit smoking will be monitored to compare the effectiveness between psilocybin and the niacin control.

The team of researchers is also currently conducting a study to compare the effectiveness of psilocybin and nicotine patches to help participants quit smoking. According to preliminary data from 61 participants, half of those who took psilocybin had quit smoking for at least a year. By comparison, only 27% of those who used nicotine patches saw similar success.

Baltimore resident Anne Levine, 58, is one of the participants in the study who used psilocybin. She said that she had been smoking a pack of cigarettes a day for four decades and had tried to quit at least a dozen times previously. But after taking psilocybin, she has not craved nicotine or smoked at all.

“I don’t crave cigarettes anymore, which is the craziest thing, because every time I’ve quit before, I’ve always craved a cigarette,” Levine said. “I don’t have that anymore. … I don’t have any of that physical desire to smoke or emotional desire to smoke.”

Although researchers are intrigued by the effectiveness of psilocybin to treat addiction, they are not sure how the compounds help people stop misusing substances.

“That’s really the million-dollar question that’s really hard to answer,” Johnson said. “I don’t think there’s any good answers in the field in terms of what’s different in the brain a year later or six months later.”

He added that other research has shown that when people take psychedelics, they “have a shift in their personality, on average, towards being more open to new experiences and so that can be expressed with smoking in any number of ways.”

Dr. Joshua Woolley, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco who is not involved with the new research, said that one theory holds that psychedelics help people let go of behaviors that have been engrained over time.

“Helping people get out of behavioral ruts … would have really big implications for mental health, addictive disorders and smoking in particular,” he said.

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