Mushroom hallucinogen could help smokers quit

By Catie Paul | November 13, 2014

Hallucinogenic mushrooms, often used as recreational drugs, could soon be used in medicine as well. A recent preliminary study has found that a combination of hallucinogen injections and therapy had an 80 percent success rate at getting smokers to stop smoking. This could become a treatment for smokers who are unable to quit through traditional methods.

Matt Johnson, a psychiatrist at the Hopkins School of Medicine, led the research into a hallucination-inducing compound called psilocybin, which occurs naturally in a variety of different types of mushrooms.

“It might sound kind of wacky to use a hallucinogen, which in one form is a sort of abuse, to treat another sort of abuse,” Johnson said.

Psilocybin is also similar to LSD, which was used in experiments from the ‘50s to the ‘70s to treat alcohol addiction. These experiments were considered inconclusive for a long time because of a lack of experimental rigor-some researchers simply strapped down unprepared subjects and injected them with high doses of LSD. However, an analysis of six such studies, conducted by Teri Krebs and Pål-Ørjan Johansen of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, found that as a whole they demonstrated that LSD was successful in helping alcoholics stop drinking.

Johnson was inspired by Krebs’s and Johansen’s paper, but made a few tweaks. He chose to study smoking instead of alcoholism because it has less of an economic and social impact but is still a serious health concern. Although about 69 percent of smokers in the U.S. say that they want to quit, it’s hard to do: Even the most effective medications, such as Chantix, only have a 35 percent success rate. Johnson also chose to study psilocybin instead of LSD because he feels that there is much less cultural baggage attached to psilocybin.

The researchers treated patients in three sessions. In the first session, they were administered a psilocybin dose of 20 milligrams per 70 kilograms, while in the next two the dose was 30 milligrams per 70 kilograms. During these sessions, the patients also underwent cognitive behavioral therapy.

“We didn’t really have a smoking focus of therapy; we had people lay on a couch, they listened to music, they wore eyeshades to focus inwards and then we provided support,” Johnson said. One session takes up a typical nine-to-five workday — Johnson compared it to outpatient surgery.

At a six month follow-up, 12 out of the 15 patients were still not smoking. The three that hadn’t quit were smoking less than they had been before. After analyzing the results of a questionnaire given to them about their experience, Johnson believes that it’s the nature of the experience while under the influence of psilocybin, rather than just taking it, that causes the cessation of smoking.

“If you had a more mystical experience, you had a greater reduction in cigarette craving,” Johnson said. Sixty-seven percent reported that the experience changed their priorities, while 50 percent said that they saw quitting and staying abstinent as a spiritual task.

Michael Bogenshutz, a psychiatrist at the University of New Mexico who was not involved in the research, thinks that it’s worth following up with.

“The main limitation is that it was open label, with only 15 participants,” Bogenshutz said. “That being said, 80 percent abstinence at six-month follow-up is truly impressive.”

Due to a lack of funding, this study was small, with only 15 subjects. There was no control group and no randomization, which precludes coming to definite conclusions. However, Johnson believes that he has learned a lot and would like to move on to a clinical trial. He is hopeful that the possibly controversial nature of his research won’t be a limitation.

“I think it’s going to be a roadblock,” Johnson  said. “Whether it’s a roadblock that stops the traffic from ever moving past, or whether it’s a roadblock that we have to carefully navigate around, we’ll see.”

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