Psychedelic ‘Magic Mushroom’ Ingredient Could Help Treat Alcohol Addiction

Study participants taking the drug psilocybin with talk therapy showed an 83 percent decline in heavy drinking

Mushrooms with light brown caps growing
Magic mushrooms remain illegal in the U.S. for recreational use, but researchers have tested psilocybin as a treatment for a variety of mental illnesses.  David Buzzard - via Getty Images

New research reveals that the psychedelic compound in magic mushrooms, in combination with talk therapy, could be a promising treatment for people with alcohol addiction.

In a study published Wednesday in JAMA Psychiatry, scientists found that patients taking this drug, called psilocybin, had an 83 percent decline in heavy drinking, while those who took a placebo experienced a 51 percent decline. 

“These are exciting results,” Dr. Michael Bogenschutz, the study’s lead investigator and the director of the New York University Langone Center for Psychedelic Medicine, tells the New York Times’ Andrew Jacobs. “Alcohol use disorder is a serious public health problem, and the effects of currently available treatments and medications tend to be small.” 

Nearly 15 million people ages 12 and older have alcohol use disorder, the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found. Every year, more than 140,000 people die from alcohol-related causes, making alcohol the third-leading preventable cause of death in the United States.

Despite this, the country has only approved three conventional drugs to treat alcohol use disorder, writes Carla K. Johnson for the Associated Press, and no new medications have been approved in the past 20 years.

A room with a couch and two chairs
The dosing room where patients recieved their drug treatment NYU Langone Health

In the new study, 93 patients took part in two medication sessions that were separated by four weeks. Each participant received either psilocybin or a placebo without being told which one they got. During their sessions, they were “encouraged to lie on a couch wearing eyeshades and headphones providing a standardized playlist of music,” write the authors. Patients also had 12 psychotherapy sessions—four before receiving any medication, four between the treatments and four after the two doses.

About half of those who received psilocybin stopped drinking altogether eight months after their first dose, while about 24 percent of the placebo group quit drinking. 

“Alcoholism is hard to treat, so any success is noteworthy,” Boris Heifets, who studies psychedelics at Stanford University and was not involved in the research, tells STAT News’ Olivia Goldhill.

A photo of a man smiling at the camera
Participant Jon Kostas says the treatment saved his life. NYU Langone Health

Scientists don't know exactly how psilocybin affects the brain, but some say it may help increase connections or shift the way the brain organizes itself, allowing users to find new ways to address their illness, per the Times.

One participant, Mary Beth Orr, tells the AP that before the study, she would have five or six drinks every night and more on weekends. After treatment, she stopped drinking entirely for two years, and she now has an occasional glass of wine. And she credits psilocybin more than the therapy, per the publication.

“It made alcohol irrelevant and uninteresting to me,” Orr tells the AP. “I am tethered to my children and my loved ones in a way that just precludes the desire to be alone with alcohol.”

The research did have one major limitation, however: Because of the noticeable effects of psychedelics, most participants were able to guess which treatment they received. Orr reported flying over landscapes, seeing her late father and merging telepathically with historical figures, per the AP. 

Next year, the researchers will start a multisite trial with more than 200 participants—the largest study of psilocybin treatment for alcohol use disorder to date, the Times writes. Depending on the trial’s results, they hope to seek approval from the Food and Drug Administration for the treatment, which has appeared promising so far. 

“It definitely affected my life, and I’d say it saved my life,” study participant Jon Kostas tells STAT. “My greatest expectations were to be able to manage my cravings. This surpassed that. It eliminated my cravings.”

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.