Conference Coverage

Psilocybin promising for alcohol use disorder



– Patients with alcohol use disorder reported a substantial decrease in drinking days, drinks per drinking day, and cravings in an ongoing trial of psilocybin at New York University.

Dr. Kelley O'Donnell, New York (N.Y.) University M. Alexander Otto/MDedge News

Dr. Kelley O'Donnell

“If this keeps going the way it looks like it’s going, I think it will lead to a large phase 3 trial that could be part of getting psilocybin rescheduled” from a schedule I drug, said NYU psychiatrist and lead investigator Kelley O’Donnell, MD, PhD.

The work builds on positive results from the 1950s and 1960s of LSD for alcoholism, before LSD research was largely abandoned. Researchers such as Dr. O’Donnell are revisiting the approach, but with psilocybin because, among other reasons, it has less stigma and a shorter duration that allows for outpatient use (J Psychopharmacol. 2012 Jul;26[7]:994-1002). The Drug Enforcement Administration currently classifies psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient in hallucinogenic, or “magic” mushrooms, as schedule I. The results found by Dr. O’Donnell’s team and other factors, such as the low risk of abuse tied to the use of psilocybin, are leading some researchers to suggest that the drug should be reclassified to “no more restrictively than schedule IV” (Neuropsychopharm. 2018 Nov;142:143-66).

Dr. O’Donnell’s presentation was part of a recurring theme at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association – the transformation of what were once considered street drugs into therapeutic tools. Favorable results also were reported for 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), commonly known as ecstasy, for posttraumatic stress disorder; ketamine for depression and suicidality; and marijuana for pain and other problems.

Concerning psilocybin for alcohol use disorder (AUD), Dr. O’Donnell said: “Some people have really profound psychological experiences that shift the way they think about themselves and the way alcohol is affecting their relationships. Therapy can work with that shift in meaning [to create] lasting change.”

Many people “say that they get exactly what they needed.” Sometimes, patients revisit a past trauma but with a greater openness and flexibility – and a growing sense of peace. “They access affective states they just don’t have access to normally,” she said.

Dr. O’Donnell recalled a man who said, after his trip: “Okay, I’m done. I’ve seen my true place in the world, and alcohol is interfering with my ability to take that place. I don’t need it, anymore.”

In another case, a woman hallucinated that she was sitting on a throne ascending through the universe, surrounded by the faces and voices of people she knew telling her she is a valuable and worthwhile person, and could take her place within the center of her universe without the sense of defectiveness and shame that often triggered her drinking. Happy little beer bottles told her: “We don’t need to be the enemy. We don’t need to be a part of your life,” Dr. O’Donnell said.

She and her team are pitting psilocybin against diphenhydramine as a control in the NYU AUD trial.

People are randomized, then undergo therapy focused equally on their alcohol use and preparing them for the drug experience. At week 4, they take their study medication – either 25 mg per 70 kg psilocybin or 50 mg diphenhydramine ­– in a relaxed living room–like setting, with classical or world music in the background. The study team avoids music with words in English. Two therapists, usually a man and a woman, are there as guides. The experience lasts a few hours; patients are debriefed afterward.

Patients undergo another round of counseling to understand the meaning of the experience, followed by a second dose, either 40 mg per 70 kg psilocybin or 100 mg diphenhydramine, at week 8. Patients are debriefed again and undergo a third month of counseling.

The results have not yet been unblinded, but Dr. O’Donnell and her team did find that, among their first 56 subjects, more intense mystical experiences, as gauged by the self-reported Mystical Experience Questionnaire (MEQ), correlated with greater treatment success.

Patients fill out the MEQ 8 hours after their dose, rating dimensions such as ego dissolution, oceanic boundlessness, joy, compassion, and openness. The maximum score is 1, the lowest 0, meaning no mystical effects. The median score among the 56 subjects was 0.26. The 30 or so patients who scored at or above that mark after their first medication session – as a group, their mean first MEQ score was 0.65 – reported a smaller percentage of drinking days at week 12 than those who scored below 0.26 (19% vs. 40%; P less than .05), with fewer drinks per drinking day (2.63 vs. 7.01; P less than .01); and lower craving (8.43 vs. 13.86 points on 30-point Penn Alcohol Craving Scale, P less than .01).

The groups were evenly matched at baseline. Both reported drinking an average of 3 out of 4 days, with an mean of 7.5 drinks per drinking day and a craving score of about 18. No differences were found in anxiety and depression scores, which were minimal in both groups.

More than half the subjects were men; the mean age was 46; and subjects were fairly well educated, reporting an average of 17 school years.

Dr. O’Donnell said she’s seen a range of experiences on psilocybin, but that bad trips are rare. Benzodiazepines are kept on hand, however, to help people who get too anxious, and an atypical antipsychotic is on hand to reverse hallucinatory effects.

Her team hopes to enroll 100 subjects and plans for follow-up past 12 weeks. Both Denver and Oakland, Calif., recently decriminalized psilocybin.

The work is being funded by the Heffter Research Institute. Dr. O’Donnell had no disclosures.

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