NIH-funded psychedelic study will investigate whether hallucinogen can help smokers quit

Can Psychedelics Help Smokers Quit?

The National Institutes of Health wants to know the answer, and to find out, they awarded a fellowship to scientists from Johns Hopkins University. It is the first time in 50 years that a federal scholarship has been awarded to study a psychedelic drug as a possible treatment.

The study, a randomized controlled trial expected to begin later this year, will investigate whether psilocybin, the psychedelic compound found in “magic mushrooms,” can help people quit tobacco smoking. Hopkins researchers will lead the study, which will be conducted in collaboration with researchers from NYU Langone Health and the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Until now, the lack of support from the NIH on psychedelic research had been a major obstacle in the field, said Dr. Joshua Woolley, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. Woolley is not involved in the new research.

“The fact that the NIH is now interested in these kinds of studies is a great thing,” said Dr. Charles Nemeroff, chair of the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin. “It will provide us with funding to do these controlled studies.” Nemeroff is not involved in the new study.

Psychedelics have garnered considerable attention as a potential treatment for mental health disorders including addiction, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. In a study published in August, researchers found that psilocybin helped drinkers reduce cravings for alcohol.

The next trial aims to include up to 66 participants. Participants will receive two doses of psilocybin or two doses of niacin, a type of B vitamin. Both groups will undergo speech therapy.

Typically in studies using psychedelics, participants receive the drug during a monitored session with a therapist, which can last for hours. Results can be seen after just one session, experts say.

The Johns Hopkins Therapy Room (Dr. Akshay Syal / NBC News)

Matthew Johnson, a psychedelic researcher at Johns Hopkins Medicine who is conducting the randomized controlled trial, chose to examine the effects on smoking cessation due to the lack of effective treatments available for people who want to quit.

Quitting smoking is extremely difficult, with less than 1 in 10 smokers succeeding each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“There are several existing treatments, both drugs and other therapies, but they all have a lot of room for improvement,” Johnson said. “None of the drugs help most people in the long run. Even after six months, the success rates are quite low. “

Psilocybin has shown promise as a smoking cessation tool. A small pilot study by Johnson and his colleagues found that the compound helped 10 out of 15 people quit smoking for at least a year.

The team is also in the midst of a study examining the effectiveness of psilocybin for smoking cessation compared to nicotine patches. The open-label study, which means patients and scientists know what treatment they are receiving, currently has results on 61 participants. According to provisional data provided by researchers to NBC News, about half of the participants who received psilocybin did not take a cigarette for a year, compared with 27 percent of those who were given nicotine patches. These numbers, the researchers noted, are expected to change once around 80 people hit the one-year milestone.

Anne Levine, 58, of Baltimore, was one of the participants in the open label study. She said she smoked about a pack a day for nearly 40 years and tried to quit a dozen times.

Anne Levine and her husband.  (Courtesy of Anne Levine)

Anne Levine and her husband. (Courtesy of Anne Levine)

He was in the group that received psilocybin and said he hasn’t smoked or craved a cigarette since.

“I don’t crave cigarettes anymore, which is the craziest thing, because every time I quit earlier, I’ve always wanted a cigarette,” Levine said. “I do not have it anymore. … I have no physical desire to smoke or an emotional desire to smoke.

It is unclear how psilocybin can help addicted people.

“This is really the million dollar question that is really hard to answer,” Johnson said. “I don’t think there are any good answers on the ground in terms of what’s different in the brain a year later or six months later.”

But some things are known psychologically, he said. When people are given psychedelics, “they have a change in their personality, on average, to be more open to new experiences and so this can be expressed with smoking in many ways.”

One of the theories, according to Woolley, is that psychedelics can help people quit long-standing behaviors.

“Helping people break out of the behavioral ruts … would really have big implications for mental health, addictive disorders and smoking in particular,” he said.

Behavioral change can result from increased neuroplasticity, a condition in which the brain can make changes, Nemeroff said. In theory, new learning is possible with psychedelics and “behavioral change can occur where it was not possible before.”

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