Do the data support psychedelics in addiction therapy?


– “We need to develop new therapies to treat addiction because of the related cost to society, which is extremely high,” said Bruno Roméo, MD, psychiatrist and addiction specialist at Paul Brousse Hospital in Villejuif, France, at the Paris-based Neuroscience, Psychiatry and Neurology Conference. Dr. Roméo spoke about the current place of psychedelics in the treatment of addiction.

“Smoking and alcohol consumption are the two main preventable causes of death in France,” he said. “Current management strategies for these addictions rarely involve pharmacological therapies, which are not very effective, in any case. We have massive relapse rates, signaling the need to develop other treatments, like psychedelic drugs.”

But what data are available on the efficacy of psychedelics in treating addiction?

Alcohol use disorder

There are few data concerning the role of psychedelics in the treatment of alcohol use disorder, but one controlled, randomized trial evaluated the efficacy of psilocybin. That trial was published in JAMA Psychiatry in 2022.

That study included 95 patients with alcohol use disorder; 49 were treated with psilocybin, and 46 were treated with diphenhydramine.

An initial medication session of psilocybin was given in week 4, then another in week 8 at a higher dose. The number of drinking days, the number of heavy drinking days, and the number of drinks consumed between weeks 32 and 36 were assessed.

The investigators showed that, after two sessions with psilocybin, there was a significant reduction in the number of heavy drinking days. In the control group, between weeks 5 and 36, 20% of days involved heavy drinking, whereas in the psilocybin group, 10% of days involved heavy drinking.

There was also a significant and rapid reduction in the number of drinking days, and this was maintained over time. Between weeks 5 and 36, just over 40% of days were reported as drinking days in the control group versus slightly more than 30% in the psilocybin group.

Similarly, the number of glasses per day was drastically reduced after taking psilocybin, and the effect occurred extremely quickly. Consumption went from six drinks to less than one drink between weeks 5 and 8. Overall, between weeks 5 and 36, the number of drinks consumed per day was more than two in the placebo group and more than one in the psilocybin group.

“Psilocybin was seen as having potential efficacy in treating alcohol use disorder. But we must tread carefully with these results; the profile of the patients enrolled in this study is different to that of the patients we regularly see in our addiction clinics. The patients enrolled in the study reported less than 60% of days as heavy drinking days,” said Dr. Romeo.

Candidates for psilocybin

According to a retrospective survey of 160 respondents that was conducted online at Paul Brousse Hospital, patients with the most severe cases of alcohol use disorder who have the most mystical psychedelic experiences seem to respond best to psilocybin and to reduce their alcohol use. It also appears that patients whose alcohol use decreased the most had lower psychological flexibility on enrollment in the study. (Psychological flexibility is the ability to adapt to change and to cope with positive and negative experiences in real time without being fazed or trying to flee from the situation.) “It’s as if they had a broader capacity for change, and psychedelics helped them more,” said Dr. Roméo.


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