Doctors are talking about using psychedelic drugs to treat alcoholics
by Kevin Loria
Treating an addiction to a mind-altering substance with another mind-altering substance might seem counterintuitive, but more and more, researchers are finding ways that psychedelic drugs like psilocybin mushrooms and party drugs like ketamine could actually help people get over alcohol and drug addictions.
Most recently, researchers published a study in the Nature journal Neuropsychopharmacology that they say offers very preliminary evidence that ketamine might be worth exploring as a way to help people with alcohol abuse disorders get over the depression and anxiety that they frequently feel after giving up booze.
That particular study was based on mice, which means that on its own, it would hardly be worth mentioning — alcoholic mice being very different from humans with drinking problems. But that’s far from the only research showing that ketamine can help with depression or that psychedelics can help addicts.
For the study in Neuropsychopharmacology, researchers showed that alcohol dependent mice display anxiety and depressed behavior after abstaining from drinking. Then, they were able to show that ketamine was able to reverse those effects, causing the mice to behave like mice who hadn’t been consuming alcohol in the first place.
These findings fit into a growing body of research that shows ketamine can reverse depression in people in powerful ways.
We might think of ketamine as a quasi-psychedelic party drug (or an animal tranquilizer), but researchers have been investigating its therapeutic properties for the past 10 years.
For many, the disassociative anesthetic drug can function as a powerful antidepressant, able to reverse even major depression in just a few hours.
“This is the next big thing in psychiatry,” San Francisco psychiatrist L. Alison McInnes recently told The Washington Post.
Right now, medical experts are trying to find ways to make that anti-depressant effect last as long as possible — for some patients it lasts longer than others, but rarely longer than a few weeks. And some experts argue that there’s there’s not enough good evidence that ketamine really relieves depression to promote using it at all so far. It’s certainly not yet widely available or affordable.
The science is far from settled. Still, other researchers are investigating ways that ketamine may actually have a protective effect that prevents certain patients from becoming depressed in the first place.
Of course, dealing with the depression that follows addiction isn’t the same thing as treating that abuse disorder in the first place.
Researchers are turning to other (still illegal) controlled substances to see whether some might work for treating addictive behavior.
In a recent Reddit AMA question-and-answer session, a representative of theMultidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) said that while their group is for now focusing on using MDMA to treat PTSD, they have sponsored research that’s shown that the powerful hallucinogen ayahuasca has been associated with a reduction in problematic alcohol and cocaine abuse.
Other researchers have shown (in small studies, so far) that psilocybin mushrooms, also known as magic mushrooms, can have a significant effect on problem drinkers, increasing abstinence rates and decreasing cravings for alcohol.
Taking psychedelic drugs in a clinical setting is far different from self-experimentation, and there’s still a lot of research that’s needed before these things find their way into common clinical use — something that’s currently illegal.
But as this growing body of research shows, it seems there may be far more to many of these substances than their reputations so far suggest.