Hallucinogens Could Hold Key To Quitting Smoking

October 22nd 2015

For cigarette smokers, quitting can be an incredibly challenging experience. Approximately 480,000 Americans die every year from cigarettes, making it the single largest preventable cause of disease and death in the country. If that's not enough to convince smokers to quit, it's evidence enough of the power of nicotine addiction. So when Johns Hopkins University came out with a study on the effects of using psilocybin, the active hallucinogenic agent in "magic mushrooms," to help longtime smokers kick the habit, the results impressed many.

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In a carefully controlled setting, smokers were introduced to magic mushrooms three times over the course of two months, upping the dose of psilocybin each time. The study, which was published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, showed a smoking abstinence rate of 80 percent after six months. Compare that to the 35 percent success rate for varenicline, a prescription drug that is considered one of the most effective addiction treatment options for smokers, after six months, and it's easy to understand why this study provoked such excitement.

Nicotine replacement and other behavioral therapies have success rates of less than 30 percent, according to the researchers.

The average age of the study participants was 55, and they smoked an average of 19 cigarettes per day for 31 years. All had repeatedly tried and failed to quit; and while some had experimented with hallucinogens in the past (on average, 27 years before participating in the study), none had thought to use magic mushrooms to treat their nicotine addiction. But researchers are increasingly finding that psilocybin may have unexplored health benefits that could be applied in the context of cognitive behavioral therapy treatment programs.

For example, psilocybin has also proven to be effective at treating depression, anxiety, and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), as CNN reported.

In the study, researchers emphasize that these results are not meant to encourage smokers to perform do-it-yourself, magic mushroom therapy sessions for smoking cessation. Rather, the success of this clinic trial appears to demonstrate that, in controlled settings overseen by medical professionals, longtime smokers who are administered psilocybin pills can be effectively coaxed out of their addiction through behavioral therapy.

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"Quitting smoking isn't a simple biological reaction to psilocybin, as with other medications that directly affect nicotine receptors," Dr. Matthew Johnson, the study's lead author and an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, wrote. "When administered after careful preparation and in a therapeutic context, psilocybin can lead to deep reflection about one's life and spark motivation to change."

Johnson plans to pursue further research into the use of psilocybin to treat smoking addiction, comparing the results to the success of using nicotine patches, and the researchers will "use MRI scans to study brain activity in participants."

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