Aug 24, 2022 - Health

Psychedelics with psychotherapy helped heavy drinkers cut back, study finds

Illustration of a large cap mushroom inside of a pill bottle.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The key ingredient in magic mushrooms combined with psychotherapy resulted in "robust decreases" in heavy drinking by adults diagnosed with alcohol dependence, according to a study published in JAMA Psychiatry.

Why it matters: It's a promising development for the understanding and treatment of alcohol abuse, which has few effective medication options, as well as addiction more generally.

  • The findings come from the first published randomized trial to examine the effects of psilocybin in addiction and surpass any previously published study of the naturally occurring psychedelic drug, said Charles Marmar, chairman of NYU Langone's psychiatry department which led the study.
  • "It’s a major breakthrough," Marmar said. "There is an urgent need for novel medications for alcohol use, for addiction generally and more broadly for the entire field of psychiatry."

The big picture: MDMA, psilocybin and LSD — combined with psychotherapy — are being explored for treating a range of addictions and mental health disorders, including treatment-resistant depression and PTSD.

This double-blind trial led by the researchers at NYU Langone compared the effectiveness of 12 weeks of psychotherapy delivered with two day-long medication sessions of either psilocybin or an active placebo.

  • The study included 95 adults ages 25 to 65 years old who had been diagnosed with alcohol dependence and had at least four heavy drinking days during the 30 days prior to screening but were not currently receiving treatment.
  • The percentage of heavy drinking days during a seven-month period was 10% for the group that received psilocybin compared to 24% in the placebo group. The consumption of drinks per day was also lower in the psilocybin group.
  • There were no serious adverse events among participants who received psilocybin.

The intrigue: Researchers aren't exactly sure why this works. But they say it appears to offer more durable outcomes by treating the underlying disorder in the brain rather than merely the symptoms of the disease.

What they're saying: "I’d say it saved my life," said Jon Kostas, a patient who suffered from alcohol dependence for years and failed multiple treatments. He said he was initially terrified to use psilocybin.

  • “I stopped drinking after my first psilocybin session. It worked that quickly for me," he said.

What to watch: The treatment is still several years away from possible FDA approval. Doctors said they are planning a multistate clinical trial with more than 200 participants and 15 sites which is expected to take at least two to three years.

  • “This is part of a really burgeoning program of research which we hope will offer relief from pain and suffering for a broad variety of patients suffering from psychiatric illness and addiction," Marmar said.
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