Psilocybin in the treatment of alcohol-dependent people

Psilocybe semilanceata - by Nic Dafis (Creative Commons License)

Psilocybe semilanceata (a natural source of Psilocybin) – by Nic Dafis (Creative Commons License)

A new study into the effects of psilocybin on alcohol dependent people, which was conducted by Rick Strassman, Michael P Bogenschutz, Alyssa A Forcehimes, Jessica A Pommy, Claire E Wilcox, PCR Barbos, has been published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, at a time when research into the efficacy of psychedelic medicines for addiction is gaining increasing amounts of  recognition within western medicine.

According to Dr Ben Sessa, a UK-based Consultant Psychiatrist for addictions: ‘It looks like mainstream bodies are certainly waking up to the possibilities of psychedelic medicine – and especially in the field of addictions.’

The study found that there was a significant increase in abstinence in participants post being administered psilocybin.

Psilocybin was used in conjunction with psychosocial treatments such as counselling and assessments, and these commenced four weeks prior psilocybin being introduced to the therapy.  The study shows that for the first four weeks there was not a significant drop in drinking and it was only when psilocybin was introduced that drinking patterns markedly altered, as well as there being a change in attitude towards drinking, within the group.

‘Participants exhibited significant improvement in drinking, with large pre–post effect sizes, as well as significant changes in psychological measures relevant to drinking. Importantly, much of the improvement occurred following the administration of psilocybin, at which time participants had already received 4 weeks of psychosocial treatment and 4–6 hours of assessment.’

The effects of psilocybin varied between participants and ‘self-report scales’ were used to monitor subjective hallucinogenic effects such as the: Hallucinogen Rating Scale and the 5-Dimensional Altered States of Consciousness Scale. Some participants suffered from mild headaches, others had stomach cramps and another with irritable bowel syndrome suffered from diarrhea, though none of the participant’s suffered such adverse effects from psilocybin that they required further medication.

Dr. Ben Sessa commented:

‘These results add favourably to the growing body of contemporary research with psilocybin. Psilocybin is increasingly shown to be a safe and efficacious compound as an adjunct to psychotherapy for a wide range of psychiatric conditions, from anxiety disorders such as OCD, existential worries associated with end end-of-life issues and trauma-based problems to – now with these studies – addictions.’

Interestingly, a correlation was found between the intensity of the experience and the degree of alcohol abstinence that the participant experienced afterwards, raising questions about the inherent quality of the psilocybin experience, if there is one, and whether this experience holds therapeutic benefits for alcoholics.

‘Also, strong correlations were observed between measures of intensity of the acute drug effects and clinical outcomes. Although change in drinking was correlated with the mystical quality of the experience, it was similarly associated with ratings of other acute effects. More work will necessary to determine whether there are particular characteristics of the acute psilocybin experience that are predictive of therapeutic benefit in alcohol use disorder.’

Saying that, though, the remarkable results in the rise in abstinence among participants cannot be proven to be the sole workings of psilocybin because there were other factors present that could have contributed to this outcome.

‘While clearly demonstrating feasibility, this study has major, self-evident limitations including small sample size, lack of a control group or blinding, and lack of biological verification of alcohol use. Due to these limitations, it is not possible to separate unequivocally the effects of attention, psychosocial treatment, and time; expectancy effects related to knowledge of receiving psilocybin; and the specific effects of psilocybin.’

The study explains that the change in drinking pattern after being administered psilocybin are significant enough to warrant further exploration into this area. This is not a completely unique study and similar studies have been conducted testing LSD and alcohol dependency, such as the recent study by Krebs and Johansen in 2012, though it seems not so much exploration with psilocybin has been carried out. So there appears to be an opportunity here for plenty more research to be done.

According to Dr. Ben Sessa:

Despite 100 years of modern psychiatry our treatments for alcohol dependency remain poor. If there is a chance psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy can improve outcomes in this field it is certainly worth further research.




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