The compound in psychedelic mushrooms helped heavy drinkers cut back or quit entirely in the most rigorous test of psilocybin for alcoholism. More research is needed to see if the effect lasts and whether it works in a larger study. The AP notes many who took a dummy drug instead of psilocybin also succeeded in drinking less, likely because all study participants were highly motivated and received talk therapy. In the study, published Wednesday in JAMA Psychiatry, 93 patients took a capsule containing psilocybin or a dummy medicine, lay on a couch, their eyes covered, and listened to recorded music through headphones. They received two such sessions, one month apart, and 12 sessions of talk therapy.
During the eight months after their first dosing session, patients taking psilocybin did better than the other group, drinking heavily on about 1 in 10 days on average vs. about 1 in 4 days for the dummy pill group. Almost half who took psilocybin stopped drinking entirely compared with 24% of the control group. Only three conventional drugs—disulfiram, naltrexone, and acamprosate—are approved to treat alcohol use disorder and there have been no new drug approvals in nearly 20 years. While it’s not known exactly how psilocybin works in the brain, researchers believe it increases connections and, at least temporarily, changes the way the brain organizes itself.
Less is known about how enduring those new connections might be. In theory, combined with talk therapy, people might be able to break bad habits and adopt new attitudes more easily. Before enrolling in the study in 2018, Mary Beth Orr of Burien, Washington, had five or six drinks every evening and more on weekends. "The quantity was unacceptable and yet I couldn’t stop," the 69-year-old says. “There was no off switch that I could access.” During her first psilocybin experience, she saw a vision of her late father, who gave her a pair of eagle eyes and said, "Go." She told the therapists monitoring her: "These eagle eyes can’t see God’s face, but they know where it is."
She stopped drinking entirely for two years, and now has an occasional glass of wine. More than the talk therapy, she credits psilocybin. "It made alcohol irrelevant and uninteresting to me," Orr said. Now, "I am tethered to my children and my loved ones in a way that just precludes the desire to be alone with alcohol." In an experiment like this, it's important that patients don't know or guess if they got the psilocybin or the dummy drug. To try to achieve this, the researchers chose a generic antihistamine with some psychoactive effects as the placebo. Still, most patients in the study correctly guessed whether they got the psilocybin or the dummy pill. (Read more psilocybin mushrooms stories.)