Mushrooms as Medicine? Psychedelics May Be Next Breakthrough Treatment

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Research has shown psilocybin to have potential to treat a range of psychiatric and behavioral disorders, although it’s yet to receive FDA approval for anything.

Its potential indications include depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, quitting smoking, alcohol addiction, cocaine addiction, cluster headaches, and cancer-related or other end-of-life psychological distress.

High-profile initiatives have also popped up in recent months in Denver, Colorado, and Oregon to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms.

However, experts say they’re unlikely to pass.

Psilocybin mushrooms remain a Schedule I drug according to the Drug Enforcement Agency, meaning they’re classified as having “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”

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Other Schedule I drugs include marijuana, MDMA, and LSD.

Yet, despite social stigma and legal red tape, researchers are forging ahead with clinical trials for FDA approval.

Dr. George R. Greer, co-founder and president of the Heffter Research Institute, a non-profit research center that focuses on the therapeutic uses of psychedelics, particularly psilocybin, explains his motivations:

“Our mission is two-fold: one to do research that helps us understand the mind, the brain, how all that works, and number two, to help reduce suffering through therapeutic use of psychedelics.”

The institute is currently focused on two main areas of psilocybin research: addiction and cancer-related psychiatric disorders. Cancer-related psilocybin therapy is considered one of the most promising areas of research for the drug.

However, considering the vast number of potential indications for psilocybin, it’s important to keep in mind that the amount of research also varies widely, from single pilot studies to phase II or III approval trials by the FDA.

Here’s what the current research says about psilocybin treatment for some potential indications.

Depression

Depression is among the most researched indications for psilocybin therapy. As Healthline previously reported last year, psilocybin therapy was given “breakthrough therapy” designation (a review fast track) by the FDA for the treatment of depression.

The Usona Institute, a psychedelic research center, is currently in the planning stages of their phase III trial, which will likely begin this year.

Smoking cessation and other addictions

In a small pilot study from Johns Hopkins University, researchers found that psilocybin therapy significantly improved abstaining from smoking over a 12-month follow-up period.

Matthew Johnson, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, led that study.

According to him, psilocybin also has potential to treat other substance use disorders, including alcohol and cocaine addiction.

“The general idea is that the nature of these disorders is a narrowed mental and behavioral repertoire,” he told Healthline. “So, [psilocybin] in well-orchestrated sessions [has] the ability to essentially shake someone out of their routine to give a glimpse of a larger picture and create a mental plasticity with which people can step outside of those problems.”

In fact, a small open-label study on psilocybin and alcohol dependence found that following treatment, both drinking and heavy drinking declined.

Researchers in Alabama are also currently conducting trials for psilocybin therapy on cocaine addiction.

Cancer-related psychological distress

“There’ve been some promising preliminary results in such areas such as the treatment of overwhelming existential anxiety in people who are facing the end of life,who have diagnoses of advanced-stage cancer,” Dr. Charles Grob, professor of psychiatry at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine, told Healthline.

Grob, who’s also affiliated with the Heffter Research Institute, has studied psilocybin extensively and authored research on the subject, including, among other things, a pilot study in 2011 on psilocybin treatment for anxiety in people with cancer.

A randomized, double-blind trial from Johns Hopkins in 2016 found that a single dose of psilocybin substantially improved quality of life and decreased depression and anxiety in people with life-threatening cancer diagnoses.

“The thing that we have the most evidence for is cancer-related depression and anxiety. That seems really strong, and I’d be surprised if those results didn’t hold up,” Johnson said, who was part of that research.