Alcohol consumption causes 5.3% of all deaths worldwide and is a factor in more than 200 illnesses and injuries, ranging from behavioral disorders to traffic accidents. Like other addictive substances, regular use can be hard for users to give up, even when it causes serious and obvious harm.
Once long-term alcoholism sets in, it alters the brain at the cellular and anatomical level, reducing a person’s ability to resist alcohol cravings and promoting addiction. In severe cases, it can cause brain damage and dementia.
“Alcohol essentially removes the brakes on executive function on the brain, leading to cravings, excessive drinking and tolerance,” says Pamela Walters, consultant in forensic psychiatry and addiction and director of the Forward Trust, an association UK addiction and mental health charity.
Breaking drinking habits early before they take root is the most effective treatment, says Walters.
But a series of studies on psychedelics suggest that taking a trip could give addicts a neurological reset that makes it easier for them to quit harmful substances. Psilocybin – the active ingredient in magic mushrooms – can reverse long-term neurological damage caused by alcoholism, says Marcus Meinhardt, a researcher at the Central Institute for Mental Health in Mannheim, Germany.
A November study in Science on psilocybin, co-authored by Meinhardt and colleagues in France and Germany, may have revealed a key mechanism behind alcoholism. Targeting this neuromechanism could restore the brain’s executive function and an alcohol user’s ability to better weigh the long-term damage caused by alcohol against the short-term reward, the authors concluded. They also recommended patient trials as important follow-up measures to verify their results.
The study, which was limited to alcohol-dependent rats, found that the animals were less likely to return to alcohol after being given psilocybin. The answer suggests that it somehow reduced rodent cravings.
More importantly, Meinhardt says, their levels of mGluR2 — a protein essential for proper brain function — dropped when they consumed alcohol. This mGluR2 increased after receiving psilocybin. The study authors hypothesize that the resurgence of mGluR2 levels in the rats restored their ability to self-regulate and made them less likely to neglect the rewards of abstinence.
“As in rodents, MGluR2 is also absent from the human brain, so we now provide mechanistic information on how to repair it,” says Meinhardt.
Glutamate is essential for normal brain function. When alcohol is consumed, however, the mGluR2 receptor behaves differently. Glutamate production also decreases, altering decision making. Dysregulation of mGluR2 has been observed in people addicted to other addictive substances like cocaine, so targeting the neurotransmitter could help treat other substance abuse, Meinhardt says.
Early studies on psychedelics to suggest that they could facilitate quitting addictive substances, either through the user gaining perspective and experience of a so-called trip, or through effects at the biological level. A small study of psilocybin and cognitive behavioral therapy for smokers in 2014 found that 67% were still tobacco-free 12 months after quitting — twice the success rate of traditional treatments.
Humphrey Osmonda pioneer of psychedelic treatment in the 50s and 60s, claims that 40-45% of alcoholics he prescribed LSD – which acts on the same brain receptors as psilocybin – were sober a year later.
Read more: Psychedelics could be the future of psychotherapy
Most trials of psychedelics were halted when the substances were banned in 1968. But the field is experiencing a renaissance. Researchers say problems treatable by hallucinogens could range from anxiety and depression to addiction and PTSD. For Meinhardt’s thesis, however, the leap from a rodent brain to a human brain is important.
Some of his preliminary studies psilocybin and LSD for alcohol addiction have been effective, but only short-term. It’s unclear whether the effects waned due to psychological differences between rodents and humans or due to incorrect timing or dosages, he says. His team is collaborate with researchers in Zurich to see if humans will exhibit the same response as rodents and plans to publish the results in the summer of 2023.
“We want to better understand how exactly this restoration [of mGluR2] works, so we can fully understand the molecular mechanisms of psilocybin and try to start clinical trials,” says Meinhardt.