Study Finds That Psychedelic Drug Therapy Can Help Treat Alcoholism

Forbes
Published 5 months ago
Close up hand with herb capsule on white background. Microdosing concept. Psychedelics therapy. Depression, anxiety treatment

New research by NYU’s school of medicine found that psilocybin mushrooms could be a breakthrough therapy for fighting alcohol addiction.

After finishing a glass of water following his first session of psilocybin therapy in November 2019, Bryan Johnson felt a switch go off inside himself and he knew he had to put the glass down. The water wasn’t the issue. To Johnson, that glass represented the alcohol he had been addicted to for decades—and it was finally time to stop drinking.

Johnson had been a social drinker since college, having a beer at a party or while on a date. However, after years working in a high-stress world of investment management in Los Angeles, Johnson says that alcohol went from being a casual indulgence to a serious problem for him as a husband and father. “For me, alcohol was a stress response for some things,” says Johnson, now 45, “and that could cause a self-reinforcing spiral.”

The desire to understand the underlying reasons behind his alcohol addiction—and end it—led Johnson to seek an experimental therapy treatment as one of 95 participants in a psilocybin study led by Dr. Michael Bogenschutz, director of the NYU Langone Center for Psychedelic Medicine.MORE FROM FORBESGoDaddy Billionaire Bob Parsons Believes Psychedelics Can Heal Trauma-And He’s Putting His Money (And Brain) On The LineBy Will Yakowicz

The results of the landmark study, which were published today, saw a significant reduction in alcohol consumption in the psilocybin group compared to the control group. Participants taking psilocybin reduced their heavy drinking days by 83%, while the control group (which received a placebo as well as psychotherapy) saw a 50% reduction in alcohol use, still a pronounced change. During the follow-up period, the psilocybin group was drinking about 60% less than those taking the placebo medication. 

The study, conducted in partnership with New York University and the University of New Mexico, compared the effects of two high doses of psilocybin (commonly referred to as “magic mushrooms”) combined with psychotherapy. Researchers observed patients between 25 and 65 who suffered from alcohol use disorder with at least four heavy drinking days in the 30 days prior to the start of the study. Researchers gave 49 participants the psilocybin while 46 were given a placebo.

Psilocybin therapy is used to penetrate emotional obstacles and long-term issues within a patient. Under the care of a licensed therapist, patients ingest psilocybin and proceed to go on a psychedelic trip in a safe and controlled environment. While patients are tripping, therapists are able to tap into deep traumas that are often out of reach from traditional therapy methods. And so for the first time since the early 1970s, when psychedelic research was halted, doctors are exploring the effectiveness of psilocybin among those suffering from disorders such as severe depression, PTSD, and drug and alcohol addiction in a published, randomized trial.

“We’re very encouraged by these findings and hopeful about where they could lead,” Dr. Bogenschutz said of the results at a press conference introducing the study. “It’s been very meaningful and rewarding for me to do this work, and inspiring to witness the remarkable recoveries that some of our participants have experienced.” MORE FROM FORBESWeed vs. Greed: How America Botched Legalizing PotBy Will Yakowicz

Although the results of the study are promising, there are some caveats among the findings. For one, more than 90% of participants and therapists correctly guessed which group the patients belonged to, meaning that preconceived expectations could have affected results. The study didn’t take into account the effects of the psilocybin on those suffering from multiple disorders. And researchers didn’t track the effectiveness of psilocybin after the 32-week period, which is significant because relapses are common among alcoholics.

Despite these challenges, Dr. Bogenschutz is hopeful that future studies will explore psilocybin’s effectiveness in treating alcoholism. “I’m not saying everybody would want to or should take psilocybin if they have alcohol use disorder,” Dr. Bogenschutz says, “but I think it would be a new option that has relatively large effects which are enduring and don’t require you to take a medication every day or regularly.” 

For Johnson, psilocybin therapy has transformed his life. He went from having 7 to 14 drinks a week to almost never craving alcohol. “I’ve had so many stressful days since [the study],” Johnson says, “and I’ve had almost no desire to drink since then.” Once he put that symbolic glass down three years ago, he hasn’t picked it up since and that is the result that matters most.

By Will Yakowicz, Forbes Staff