The five-hour duration of the experience will also make it costly in a health care setting, which could limit its use in lower-income communities disproportionately affected by drug and alcohol abuse. Still, many experts hungry for new addiction therapies say that psilocybin represents a new and potentially exciting treatment for people suffering from a disease that is difficult to address.
Treating more than a chemical dependency
One of the reasons addictions are so hard to treat is that most are more than chemical dependency. Long after the short-term withdrawals have waned, people suffering from addiction often face living without the stress release valve that their habit gave them. Those wishing to quit may persevere for a few weeks or months, but when stressed or upset, their brains often divert them back to the familiar territory of their addiction.
Some experts say psilocybin addresses that psychological need. Along with LSD and mescaline, it is known as a “classic psychedelic,” which activates switches in the brain’s visual cortex, the serotonin 5-HT2a receptors, producing hallucinations. Back in the psychedelic heyday of the 1950s and 1960s, such drugs were evaluated for treating depression and addiction with mixed results.
But that work was put on ice in the 1970s with the passage of the Controlled Substances Act, which placed LSD and psilocybin in the most restrictive legal category, known as Schedule 1.
Thirty years later, in 2000, Roland Griffiths, a psychopharmacologist at Johns Hopkins, received the green light from the Food and Drug Administration to study the psychological effects of psilocybin on 30 volunteers. In a survey given to participants two months after their session, more than half ranked it as among the most meaningful experiences of their lives.
Psychedelic research has blossomed since then. A British study published earlier this year found that people with severe alcohol abuse disorder who received ketamine-assisted therapy abstained from drinking 10 percent more over six months than those who received just a placebo along with therapy or education.
Some studies on ketamine and addiction, however, suggest that its antidepressant effect wears off over time, and participants may need repeated infusions. This is a potential problem because the drug itself has the potential to become a drug of abuse and overdoses can, in rare cases, be fatal.