(Editor’s Note: Welcome to the fourth installment of “From Magic to Money,” a Bold series on the rising psilocybin industry. The first article explored the health benefits of psilocybin, the second delved into its legal history, and the third dug into the companies making moves in the space. Don’t miss any of these stories–sign up for The Bold Wire newsletter and have them sent directly to your inbox!)
Over the last two decades, there has been somewhat of a psychedelics renaissance. Psychedelics like LSD, magic mushrooms, and MDMA were previously frowned upon in terms of their use. But this has evolved as science is increasingly realizing that these 1960s’ hallucinogenics have a strong potential for therapeutic effects. Today, many researchers are starting to explore the benefits of these compounds in a wide variety of conditions. In the process, they are finding that psychedelics promote lasting benefits in conditions like depression. And likewise, they are showing significant improvements in substance abuse and chemical addictions. This has now led to increasing interest in the use of psilocybin treatment in tobacco addiction therapy.
In the last month, the National Institute of Health (NIH) decided to award Johns Hopkins Medicine a $4 million grant. This grant is to be used to evaluate psilocybin treatment among patients who suffer from tobacco addiction. Psilocybin is a known psychedelic and represents the primary hallucinogenic compound in magic mushrooms. But it has also been shown to have significant benefits as a tobacco addiction therapy in recent pilot studies. Though these studies were small in the number of participants, they were nonetheless enough to persuade NIH. And given that this is the first NIH grant in over 50 years for psychedelic research, their decision speaks volumes.
“We knew it was only a matter of time before the NIH would fund this work because the data are so compelling, and because this work has demonstrated to be safe. Psilocybin does have very real risks, but these risks are squarely mitigated in controlled settings through screening, preparation, monitoring and follow-up care.” – Matthew Johnson, Ph.D., Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
Research Plans Using Psilocybin Treatment
The basis for future research using psilocybin treatment as a tobacco addiction therapy stems from earlier studies. In 2014, the same Johns Hopkins researchers performed a multi-week study involving 15 participants with tobacco addiction. Each participant received cognitive behavioral therapy (CB) before and after psilocybin treatment by a qualified therapist. Follow-up assessments 6 months later then showed that 80 percent had completely stopped using tobacco. Given that the best therapies otherwise report only a 35 percent success rate, the results were pretty astounding. And they were also enough to support grant funding for additional research.
Notably, the pilot study involved a small number of participants over a limited period of time. As a result, researchers at Johns Hopkins plan to expand the study significantly using the grant money provided. The upcoming trial won’t only involve Johns Hopkins but also the University of Alabama in Birmingham and New York University. The multi-site study will take place over 3 years and hopefully involve a diverse group of individuals. Likewise, a similar protocol using CBT combined with psilocybin treatment will be utilized. Naturally, the researchers are hopeful that similar results will be obtained, supporting the role of psychedelics in tobacco addiction therapy.
“Psilocybin has the potential to significantly improve the effectiveness of smoking cessation treatments. Considering almost half a million Americans die from smoking every year, this could end up saving millions of lives, if not more.” Peter Hendricks, Ph.D., Department of health Behavior, University of Alabama at Birmingham
How Psilocybin Treatment Works in Tobacco Addiction
When it comes to therapeutic uses of psilocybin treatment, it is known to have some effects neurochemically. In fact, psilocybin is a serotonin agonist, which may be why it helps with other conditions like anxiety and depression. But its mechanism of action involves much more than this. Researchers now believe psychedelics in general have the ability to reset our brain’s default mode network, or DMN. Our DMN is essentially the thoughts we have when we are idle, such as when we are daydreaming. These idle thoughts are important, however, because they can perpetuate detrimental self-beliefs and emotions. This has important relevance in mood disorders and addiction.
In essence, psychedelics are increase a person’s ability to become more open-minded and see things from a new perspective. At the same time, these compounds stimulate new neuronal growth in the brain and create new neuronal pathways. If psilocybin treatment is combined with effective talk therapy, then it offers tremendous potential in changing behavior. Through new insights and motivational effects, it can lead to the adoption of healthier lifestyles. This is why many researchers in the field believe it has significant potential as a tobacco addiction therapy.
“People have deeply introspective experiences. They have an increase in mental flexibility and personality openness. And so, people are more ready to make longstanding changes…” – Matthew Johnson, Ph.D.
A Different Kind of Gateway Drug
The emergence of the psychedelic renaissance offers great potential in a variety of areas. Studies to date have already demonstrated how psilocybin treatment can result in high levels of remission in depression patients. It is also showing promise in other health conditions like PTSD, anxiety disorders, and other addictions. If addition trials, including the one planned by Johns Hopkins, continue to show impressive results, this could be a game-changer. Psilocybin may lead the way to a host of other investigations related to neurological and mental health. And it may also expand research opportunities for other psychedelics as well.
Certainly, the number of people who struggle with tobacco use warrant further study when it comes to psilocybin treatment. An effective tobacco addiction therapy would not only save millions of lives. But it would also reduce the risk of other health problems such as lung cancer, emphysema, heart disease, and stroke. This is the same reason that psilocybin treatment is being further explored in depression. Given the millions who suffer from this condition, and the lack of curative therapies, it’s worth evaluating psychedelics’ potential. It appears the NIH is on board with this line of thinking based on its decision to award Johns Hopkins this current grant. Hopefully, the results of future studies continued to support such choices and lead to much-improved tobacco addiction therapy options.