NIH-Funded Psychedelic Trial Will Investigate Whether Hallucinogens Can Help Smokers Quit

Can psychedelics help smokers quit?

The National Institutes of Health want to know the answer, and to find out, they awarded a grant to scientists at Johns Hopkins University. This is the first time in 50 years that a federal grant has been awarded to study a psychedelic drug as a possible treatment.

The study, a randomized controlled trial due to start later this year, will examine whether psilocybin, the psychedelic compound found in ‘magic mushrooms’, can help people quit smoking. Hopkins researchers will lead the trial, which will be performed in collaboration with researchers from NYU Langone Health and the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Until now, the lack of NIH support for psychedelic research had been a major obstacle in the field, said Dr. Joshua Woolley, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. Woolley is not involved in the new research.

“The fact that the NIH is now interested in these types of studies is a good thing,” said Dr. Charles Nemeroff, chair of the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Texas Dell Medical School. in Austin. “That will provide us with funds to be able to do these controlled studies.” Nemeroff is also not involved in the new study.

Psychedelics have garnered considerable attention as a potential treatment for mental health disorders, including addiction, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. In a study published in August, researchers found that psilocybin helped drinkers reduce their cravings for alcohol.

The upcoming trial aims to include up to 66 participants. Participants will receive either two doses of psilocybin or two doses of niacin, a type of B vitamin. Both groups will undergo talk therapy.

Typically, in studies using psychedelics, participants receive the drug in a supervised session with a therapist, which can last for hours. Results can be seen after just one session, experts say.

The therapy room at Johns Hopkins (Dr. Akshay Syal/NBC News)

The therapy room at Johns Hopkins (Dr. Akshay Syal/NBC News)

Matthew Johnson, a psychedelic researcher at Johns Hopkins Medicine who is leading the randomized controlled trial, chose to examine the effects on smoking cessation due to the lack of effective treatments available for people who want to quit.

Quitting smoking is extremely difficult, with less than 1 in 10 smokers trying to succeed each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“There are several existing treatments, both drugs and other therapies, but they all have a lot to do,” Johnson said. “None of the drugs help the majority of people in the long term. Even six months later, the success rates are quite low. »

Psilocybin has shown promise as a smoking cessation tool. A small pilot study by Johnson and colleagues found the compound helped 10 out of 15 people quit smoking for at least a year.

The group of researchers is also in the middle of a study to determine the effectiveness of psilocybin for quitting smoking compared to nicotine patches. The open-label trial – which means patients and scientists know what treatment they are receiving – currently has results on 61 participants. According to preliminary data provided by the researchers to NBC News, about half of the participants who received psilocybin had not smoked a cigarette in a year, compared to 27% of those who received nicotine patches. Those numbers, the researchers noted, are expected to change once about 80 people reach the one-year milestone.

Anne Levine, 58, of Baltimore, was one of the open-label study participants. She said she had smoked about a pack a day for almost 40 years and had tried to quit a dozen times.

Anne Levine and her husband.  (Courtesy of Anne Levine)

Anne Levine and her husband. (Courtesy of Anne Levine)

She was part of the group that received psilocybin and said she hasn’t smoked or wanted to smoke since.

“I don’t crave cigarettes anymore, which is the craziest thing, because every time I’ve quit before, I’ve always had a craving for a cigarette,” Levine said. “I don’t have that anymore. … I don’t have this physical desire to smoke or this emotional desire to smoke.

It is still unclear how psilocybin can help people suffering from addiction.

“That’s really the million dollar question that’s really hard to answer,” Johnson said. “I don’t think there are good answers in the field in terms of what’s different in the brain a year later or six months later.”

But some things are known psychologically, he says. When people are given psychedelics, they “have a shift in their personality, on average, towards being more open to new experiences and so this can be expressed with smoking in a number of ways.”

One of the theories, according to Woolley, is that psychedelics can help people let go of long-standing behaviors.

“Helping people out of behavioral ruts…would have very big implications for mental health, addiction disorders and smoking in particular,” he said.

The change in behavior may come from increased neuroplasticity, a condition in which the brain can make changes, Nemeroff said. In theory, with psychedelics, new learning is possible and “behavioral change can occur where it could not occur before”.

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