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psilocybin and alcohol addiction

Alcohol use disorder (AUD), also known as alcoholism and alcohol abuse, is a condition wherein a person is no longer able to control their alcohol intake even if it presents risks health and occupation wise.


It’s an umbrella term that is used to refer to the symptoms that are the same as alcoholism and addiction. Since it changes the chemistry of the brain, it is already considered a type of a brain disorder though its symptoms can vary from mild to moderate and severe. Alcohol misuse for prolonged periods of time lead to long-lasting changes in the brain chemistry, while making relapse much more possible.

 

Data shows that some 107 million people around the world suffer from alcohol use disorder. It can cause deaths, both indirectly and directly. It’s also linked to mental health issues that can further reduce one’s quality of life.

 

So how do we deal with a condition that plagues societies all over the world? Not everyone can afford the healthcare costs related to alcoholism, and with such a stigma attached to it, many don’t even want to seek help.

 

Enter Psilocybin

 

Psilocybin is a naturally-occurring compound found in magic mushrooms which grow in Asia, the United States, Europe, Mexico, and South America. The mushrooms may be dried or fresh, and they can come from any of the more than 180 species of mushrooms which contain this therapeutic compound.

 

Psilocybin has been used for centuries by native tribes as well as in religious ceremonies. In recent decades, its therapeutic use and benefits in the medical setting have been discovered. One new study examines its benefits for treating alcohol use disorder. The researchers analyzed the impact of alcohol addiction on the frontal cortex of rat models with alcoholism, after which they examined how psilocybin worked on a molecular level. Psilocybin is one of several psychedelic drugs that are currently being studied today for their promising benefits on behavioral disorders, one of which is addiction.


“In alcohol use disorder you see a lot of cell loss and degeneration of brain tissue. Then, on a network level, when you look at activity of different networks, you see that many networks that are related to executive function, they are mainly downregulated, but highly increased when, for example, they are challenged by specific cues such as smell of alcohol,” explains first author Dr. Marcus Meinhardt, of the study which was published in Science Advances. Meinhardt is a researcher from the Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim, Germany, linked with the University of Heidelberg.

 

Meinhardt and his team specifically focused on a glutamate receptor which is impacted by pure alcohol; the receptor is known as metabotropic glutamate receptor subtype 2 (mGluR2). Glutamate plays an important role in healthy brain function, so when it’s damaged such as by too much alcohol consumption, neurotransmission work in the brain is faulty. What makes it worse is that alcohol reduces the production of glutamate, resulting in less neurotransmitter to be produced.

 

The researchers admit that there are many factors at play here, many of which they still don’t know about because the world of treating addiction and changing that behavior is still so complex even to today’s scientists. According to Meinhardt, there’s still a lot to explore when it comes to the mechanisms at play.

 

However, the use of psilocybin for treating addiction is nothing new. What puzzles researchers is exactly how it happens.

 

Older Studies About Psilocybin And Addiction

 

One of the breakthrough studies regarding the topic occurred in 2006, when Roland Griffiths, a renowned researcher of substance abuse at John Hopkins, led a landmark study which was originally meant to analyze the impact of immediate as well as long-term mental health effects when psilocybin was consumed at high doses.

 

They had 36 healthy subjects who occasionally took psilocybin to indulge in mystical experiences, one of the most common or perhaps the most common reasons why people take it. After their session, the participants reported feeling positive mentally, and it was observed in their behavior even months after the experiment. A third of them also rated the experience as one of the most significant times of their lives spiritually, while 80% of them said it was among the top 5 meaningful experiences.

 

Michael Bogenschutz, a lead investigator for alcohol abuse and addiction studies, as well as psychiatry in the early 1990’s, said that the findings of this study were pivotal for recovery and addiction. “As a clinician and scientist, I’ve always been interested in how people change,” he explained. “It’s very hard to predict or understand. Especially with addiction, sometimes it can happen based on nothing we can discern, and sometimes people achieve a categorical change in behavior as a result of some big religious epiphany or spiritual awakening,” he says.

 

Even if the participants of the Hopkins study were not addicted to anything, Bogenschutz says “the fact that they had mystical experiences that were extremely meaningful to them and were associated with positive behavioral change, which was corroborated by their family members, got me to study this.”

 

Matthew Johnson, a Johns Hopkins associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences in 2012, conducted another experiment involving 15 patients. They all smoked an average of 19 cigarettes per day, for over 30 decades and tried 6 times to quit. All participants were made to undergo 15 weeks of a smoking cessation program, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) as well as psilocybin treatment once a week during weeks 5 and 7. They were also given the option to take it on the 13th week.

 

A then 65-year old participant, Gordon McGlothin, who was smoking 20 cigarettes a day, was part of the study. During one of these sessions, McGlothlin was administered with a capsule that had pure psilocybin, and he was also told by the researchers told him that it was his last day to smoke cigarettes.

 

At 6 months post-study, 80% of the participants were no longer smoking. “The results are not conclusive, but we strongly suspect that it is the psilocybin playing a role, because the quit rates are so much higher than even the best current psychological or pharmacological treatments for tobacco addiction, which are typically around 35%,” Johnson explains.

 

Given these success rates, we can only expect more positive results as scientists delve deeper into the world of psychedelics. It may just be the cure we’re all looking for to treat addiction.

 

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