Conference Coverage

Psilocybin yields encouraging results in addiction studies



– Small but tantalizing studies are showing benefits from treatment with psilocybin, the psychedelic substance, for alcohol and cocaine addiction, according to findings presented at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry.

Dr. Michael Bogenshutz

Dr. Michael Bogenshutz

Researchers emphasized that the results are in the early stages, and that treatment is administered only after careful patient screening and in controlled environments. In a proof-of-concept study of 10 patients, subjects with alcohol use disorder (AUD) underwent 12 weeks of psychosocial treatment, with two psilocybin “sessions” mixed in, at weeks 4 and 8. At baseline, 35% of the patients’ days were heavy drinking days, but by weeks 25-36, only about 12% were heavy drinking days, a significant reduction. Days with any drinking fell from just over 40% to about 15% over that period, also a significant drop, said Michael P. Bogenschutz, MD, professor of psychiatry at New York University, who is leading the research (J Psychopharmacol. 2015 Mar;29[3]:289-99).

In a current trial of more than 100 participants that he is leading, early data are available on the first 56 patients through 12 weeks. Patients have been treated with psilocybin or diphenhydramine as placebo, along with Motivational Enhancement Therapy and Taking Action therapy. They are not dependent on any other substance and are medically healthy. For psilocybin administration, patients lie on a couch with a sleep mask on, and therapists are present for all sessions.

With the study still blinded, researchers assessed Mystical Experience Questionnaire (MEQ) scores as a signal on whether patients were in the psilocybin group or not. Those with high MEQ scores had a significant reduction in percentage of heavy drinking days through week 12, Dr. Bogenschutz said.

Meanwhile, results were presented for the first 10 patients in a 40-patient study of psilocybin for cocaine treatment at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Patients taking psilocybin have significantly more days of abstinence and significantly better scores on the Severity of Dependence Scale, compared with placebo, said Peter L. Hendricks, MD, of the department of anesthesiology at UAB. He said patients have reported no adverse effects of the treatment so far.

The mechanisms at work remain something of a puzzle, researchers said. Some patients report lower levels of depression and higher life satisfaction scores, which suggests that the treatment could lead to better coping ability.

Finally, research at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore involving psilocybin administration to healthy volunteers has found that a high mystical experience score predicts feelings of meaningfulness, spiritual significance, and openness at 14 months and longer after it is administered, said Roland R. Griffiths, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral science and of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins.

“Psilocybin, when administered to carefully screened and prepared volunteers, can occasion unique experiences that are judged to be personally meaningful and which are associated with enduring positive changes in mood, attitudes, and behavior,” he said. Neuroplasticity and changes in functional connections in the brain also could be playing a role, Dr. Bogenschutz said.

In his study of AUD, Dr. Bogenschutz said, occasionally patients do report unpleasant experiences with psilocybin administration. However, one patient called the sessions a “crash course in dealing with feelings of disappointment, regret, shame, and unworthiness.”

“There’s a lot of mystical-type content in these sessions, but there’s also a lot of other things going on,” he said, “that for many people seem to be equally important in terms of generating change.”

Dr. Bogenshutz reported funding from several sources, including the Heffter Research Institute, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Dr. Griffiths reported funding from Heffter, the Fetzer Institute, the Templeton Foundation, the Riverstyx Foundation, the Council of Spiritual Practices, and NIDA. Dr. Hendricks reported no relevant disclosures.

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