Magic Mushrooms Could Help Smokers Kick The Habit

János Csongor Kerekes, 'Hmm..Mushrooms...look at those Unicorns!' via Flickr. CC BY-ND 2.0

Psilocybin, the active hallucinogenic ingredient in magic mushrooms, could help long-term smokers kick the habit, a new Johns Hopkins study has found. But before you skip to the woods and merrily start self-medicating, the participants were also enrolled in a cognitive behavioral therapy program, and they’re not really sure why it works yet. The study has been published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.

Magic mushrooms, or “shrooms,” are hallucinogenic mushrooms that contain the psychedelic ingredients psilocybin and psilocin. When consumed, they can alter your mood, perception and behavior; this experience is colloquially known as “tripping.” They’ve been taken in religious rituals in Mexico and Central America for thousands of years and today they’re still used recreationally.

Some studies have suggested that hallucinogens may have therapeutic uses, for example in the treatment of depression. Early findings also hinted that psilocybin may be beneficial to patients with substance use disorders, but no one conducted any follow-up studies.

To find out whether this psychedelic compound could help tobacco smokers, Johns Hopkins researchers enrolled 10 male and 5 female psychiatrically healthy volunteers. The participants were all nicotine-dependent smokers around the age of 50 that had smoked, on average, 20 cigarettes a day for 30 years. Participants had also previously attempted to ditch the cigs around six times throughout their lives.

During the first session, participants were administered a moderate (20 mg/70 kg) dose of psilocybin in pill form, and in two subsequent sessions spread over eight weeks they were administered a high dose (30 mg/70 kg). Participants were closely monitored during the session, which took place in a homelike setting. Some covered their eyes and listened to music, and they were encouraged to relax and focus on their inner experiences.

The sessions were paired with a comprehensive cognitive behavioral therapy program designed to help them quit smoking. This included one-on-one counseling sessions and advising the participants to keep a diary in order to note when they felt they needed a cigarette most.

After six months, they found that 80% of the participants had abstained from smoking. This is markedly higher than the rates achieved with other common treatments, such as nicotine replacement and behavioral therapies which usually only have a 30% success rate. Varenicline, a widely used prescription drug for nicotine addiction, also only has a 35% success rate at six months.

The researchers conclude that while the study cannot inform us of the efficacy of psilocybin, it seems to suggest that it may be useful in conjunction with current smoking cessation programs.

Before you start googling magic mushroom growing kits, the researchers warn that the results were specific to the controlled doses given in the context of a structured therapy program.

“Quitting smoking isn’t a simple biological reaction to psilocybin, as with other medications that directly affect nicotine receptors,” lead author Matthew Johnson said in a news release. “When administered after careful preparation and in therapeutic context, psilocybin can lead to deep reflection about one’s life and spark motivation to change.”

It’s also important to note that this was a very small pilot study with no control group, so further studies will be required to confirm the results. The researchers therefore plan to take the work forward by comparing psilocybin with nicotine patches.  

[Via Johns Hopkins, Journal of Psychopharmacology and Science]

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