A new study published this week shows that psilocybin shows promise as a treatment for alcohol misuse disorder, giving new evidence that the psychoactive component of magic mushrooms could help people struggling with addiction. Results of the study, which was conducted by researchers at New York University in partnership with the University of New Mexico, were published on Wednesday in the peer-reviewed journal JAMA Psychiatry.
Dr. Michael Bogenschutz, director of the NYU Langone Center for Psychedelic Medicine and the lead author of the study, said at a press conference that the research has already made a significant difference in the lives of some of the study’s 95 participants.
“We’re very encouraged by these findings and hopeful about where they could lead,” Bogenschutz said. “It’s been very meaningful and rewarding for me to do this work, and inspiring to witness the remarkable recoveries that some of our participants have experienced.”
Alcohol misuse and addiction extract a heavy toll on society in the United States. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that alcohol misuse kills about 95,000 Americans each year, reducing life span by an average of 26 years.
“It’s a major breakthrough,” Charles Marmar, chair of NYU Langone’s psychiatry department, said of the study. “There is an urgent need for novel medications for alcohol use, for addiction generally and more broadly for the entire field of psychiatry.”
To conduct the double-blind study, researchers recruited participants aged 25 to 65 with alcohol use disorder who experienced at least four heavy drinking days in the 30 days before the study. Heavy drinking was defined as four or more drinks in a day for women and five or more drinks for men. During the study, participants had two day-long medication sessions and 12 psychotherapy sessions over 12 weeks.
Among the study group, 49 received psilocybin, and 46 were given a placebo. Participants who received psilocybin reduced their heavy drinking days by 83%, while those in the control group saw a reduction of 51%. Eight months after the first dose, 48% of participants who took psilocybin had stopped drinking completely, compared with 24% of the placebo group.
At Wednesday’s press conference at NYU, study participants shared their experience taking psilocybin to treat their heavy drinking.
“It definitely affected my life and I’d say it saved my life,” said New York resident Jon Kostas. “My greatest expectations were to be able to manage my cravings. This surpassed that. It eliminated my cravings.”
Bogenschutz said that there is a strong precedent for using psychedelics to treat alcohol addiction, noting that in the 1950s and ‘60s researchers had success treating heavy drinkers with LSD. Although those studies do not meet today’s standards, the research still helped guide the new study.
“It suggested there was a pretty robust and consistent effect, even though they were a varied group in terms of their methodology,” said Bogenschutz.
Boris Heifets, a psychedelics researcher at Stanford who was not involved in the study, agreed the results are impressive.
“Alcoholism is hard to treat, so any success is noteworthy,” he said.
The authors of the study noted that the research had some limitations. Researchers tracked participants for only 32 weeks, a significant factor given the rates of relapse among those with alcohol misuse disorder. The researchers also did not account for study participants with multiple disorders. Additionally, despite being a double-blind study, the noticeable effects of psilocybin resulted in 90% of therapists and participants correctly guessing which group patients were in.
“Most people were able to guess what drug they were able to receive,” said Bogenschutz.
Despite the shortcomings of the study, the lead author said that he hoped research into psilocybin as a treatment for alcohol misuse disorder will continue.
“I’m not saying everybody would want to or should take psilocybin if they have alcohol use disorder,” Bogenschutz told Forbes. “But I think it would be a new option that has relatively large effects, which are enduring and don’t require you to take a medication every day or regularly.”
Given the results of the study, Bogenschultz said that NYU would continue the research with a multisite study of more than 200 participants to begin next year. Depending on the findings from that study, researchers plan to submit the treatment to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for approval. The university has also filed a provisional patent application based on the research, Bogenschultz noted.
“One of the reasons is to prevent it from being grabbed by other people who might use it to get a monopoly and make it harder for people to receive this treatment,” he said. “This is about making this treatment available, if it’s shown to be effective, to as many people as possible to treat hard to treat disorders.”