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Psilocybin Paves New Path to Beating Addiction

Sep 21, 2020
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Are you trying to quit smoking? There may be a new, effective way to kick your bad habit—psilocybin, the active compound found in "magic mushrooms", is fast emerging as a strong candidate for helping people overcome addiction.

In 2014, John Hopkins researchers found that 80 percent of patients were still smoke-free six months after undergoing controlled and monitored psilocybin sessions within the context of a cognitive behavioral therapy program.

The small open-label study administered psilocybin to patients at up to three sessions—one at the target quit date, another two weeks later, and a third, optional session, eight weeks later. Participants also attended cognitive behavior therapy sessions, or talk therapy focused on changing thought patterns, before and after taking the drug.

By comparison, patients who took varenicline, which is considered the most effective smoking cessation drug available, only experienced a 35 percent abstinence rate. Other treatments, such as nicotine replacement and other behavioral therapies, typically have abstinence rates of less than 30 percent. 

A follow-up study found that nearly 70 percent of the original study's participants were still abstinent a year after their quit date, and 60 percent of them had still not smoked after 16 months or more.

John Hopkins Bets on the Future of Psilocybin and Psychedelic Therapy

The evidence is so promising that John Hopkins Medicine recently launched its own Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research with the primary focus of exploring the potential of psilocybin and other psychedelic drugs for treating everything from addiction to anxiety and depression, even Alzheimer's. 

"Psychedelics are a fascinating class of compounds," said Dr. Roland Griffiths, the center's director and professor of a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, during a press briefing. "They produce a unique and profound change of consciousness over the course of just several hours."

Roland should know—his research group has been investigating psilocybin for the last 20 years. His research group's publication on psilocybin back in 2006 is widely considered one of the studies that sparked renewed interest in psychedelic therapy worldwide. Since the first foundational study, John Hopkins has published over 60 peer-reviewed articles in scientific journals on the therapeutic benefits of psilocybin. 

While it's still unclear what exact mechanisms make psilocybin so effective, many experts believe it has the ability to alter the neuroplasticity in brain networks. In other words, it may help rewire the brain to be more open to change, helping people break out of the habitual patterns they have created.

However, researchers at John Hopkins hope to reveal the answers with future studies on psilocybin and other psychedelic treatments. The center will focus on the potential effects on behavior, mood, cognition, brain function, and other biological markers of health. 

"Johns Hopkins is deeply committed to exploring innovative treatments for our patients," said Paul B. Rothman, CEO of Johns Hopkins Medicine and dean of the medical school's faculty. "Our scientists have shown that psychedelics have real potential as medicine, and this new center will help us explore that potential."

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