A recent clinical study led by NYU Langone found that psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient in magic mushrooms, reduced heavy drinking by 83%, compared with a 51% reduction among those who received an antihistamine placebo.
Psychedelic treatment for alcoholism became popular in the 1960s and 1970s, when LSD studies showed that the substance reduced alcohol misuse. Yet that possibility ceased to be considered until now.
The results: Psilocybin helps reduce alcohol cravings
The randomized study with 93 alcohol-dependent participants showed that those receiving two doses of psilocybin together with psychotherapy saw an 83% reduction in heavy drinking habits measured over eight months, while the subgroup offered an antihistamine placebo with psychotherapy showed a 51% reduction.
More specifically, in the 12 weeks before the study, the participants drank alcohol for an average of 60 days. Of that total, about half were heavy drinking days -that is, five or more drinks for a man and four or more for a woman per day.
Everyone in the study started drinking less after the first four weeks of therapy; the percentage of heavy drinking days dropped from half to a quarter. But that number dropped even lower for those taking psilocybin.
At the end of the study, the psilocybin group drank heavily on around 10% of the days when they drank, while the antihistamine group was still drinking heavily on almost a quarter of drinking days. What’s more, the daily alcohol consumption was also lower in the psilocybin group.
All 93 participants received 12 psychotherapy sessions before, between and after psilocybin administrations.
It is important to note that the study found no serious adverse events among participants who received psilocybin.
Further evidence of psilocybin’s effectiveness? 48% of participants treated with the psychedelic stopped consuming alcohol entirely after the eight months, compared to 24% in the placebo group.
Comments and further steps
In view of the study results, senior author and psychedelics researcher at NYU Michael Bogenschutz said: “Our findings strongly suggest that psilocybin therapy is a promising means of treating alcohol use disorder, a complex disease that has proven notoriously difficult to manage.”
Bogenschutz is also the author of a 2015 research on the same topic, The study found that, after receiving a sole dose of psilocybin, the 10 alcohol-dependent participants showed a 40 to 60% drop in alcohol use and addiction, and that those who had more intense trips were more benefited by the treatment.
Study participant Jon Kostas, who received psilocybin, had tried all sorts of treatments before, including Alcoholics Anonymous, rehab and visiting various specialists. “I’d say it saved my life. This eliminated all my cravings to the point where it cured my alcoholism. And I don’t categorize myself as an alcoholic anymore.”
The NYU study fills a void in the understanding of psilocybin’s efficacy for the treatment of alcohol use disorder, a condition affecting millions of people worldwide and for which other psychedelics are also being tested as plausible treatment options.
It is still unclear why psychedelics help people drink less: the combination of psilocybin with therapy is key to the treatment approach, so it’s not possible to determine what the effects of the psychedelic would be on its own, nor why or how the combination might eventually help.
“We just need to start doing some mechanistic studies to find out what is actually going on. And the truth is, we don’t know,” Bogenschutz said. Nonetheless, he posits that these substances might be helpful for the brain to change and grow in areas affecting thought and behavior, which in turn could make people more open and receptive to therapy.
Magic mushrooms are not only believed to have the ability to treat alcohol addiction, but other substance abuse issues as well.
“As research into psychedelic treatment grows, we find more possible applications for mental health conditions. Beyond alcohol use disorder, this approach may prove useful in treating other addictions such as cigarette smoking and abuse of cocaine and opioids,” Bogenschutz said.
The team is currently preparing to conduct a similar yet larger trial to further demonstrate that magic mushrooms can -and should- be used in diagnostic and clinical settings aiming to help cure different types of addictions. “If these effects hold up in future trials, psilocybin will be a real breakthrough in the treatment of alcohol use disorder,” Bogenschutz concluded.