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Johns Hopkins Medicine awarded first federal grant for psychedelic treatment research in 50 years

The grant from the National Institutes of Health will fund research exploring the potential impacts of psilocybin on tobacco addiction.

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What are the impacts of psilocybin on tobacco addiction?


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That question has led to Johns Hopkins Medicine receiving its first National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant to directly investigate the therapeutic effects of a classic psychedelic in more than half a century.

The near US$4 million ($4.9 million) grant will fund a multi-site, three-year study led by Hopkins Medicine. The University of Alabama at Birmingham and New York University will also take part in the research.

“The historical importance of this grant is monumental,” principal investigator Matthew Johnson said in a statement. “We knew it was only a matter of time before the NIH would fund this work because the data are so compelling and because this work has demonstrated to be safe. Psilocybin does have very real risks, but these risks are squarely mitigated in controlled settings through screening, preparation, monitoring and follow-up care,” Johnson said.


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Johnson, the Susan Hill Ward Professor in Psychedelics and Consciousness in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, began researching psilocybin for tobacco smoking cessation 13 years ago.

In 2014, Johnson led a pilot study at Johns Hopkins that found longtime smokers who had previously failed to quit smoking after many attempts were able to successfully stub out the habit after incorporating psilocybin in a cognitive behavioural therapy treatment program.

Six months after participating in the study, the abstinence rate was 80 per cent. Nicotine replacement and behavioural therapies typically have success rates of less than 30 percent.


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When the study was published, Johnson also warned that smokers shouldn’t pursue psychedelic drug use for smoking cessation unless it occurs in the context of a treatment program with trained professionals.

“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,” he said. “Quitting smoking isn’t a simple biological reaction to psilocybin.”

A 2018 study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology tracked 15 participants who completed a psilocybin-facilitated smoking cessation pilot study between 2009 and 2015. Participants took part in a retrospective follow-up interview an average of 30 months after treatment and reported gaining “vivid insights into self-identity and reasons for smoking from their psilocybin sessions.”


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Researchers found that the “psilocybin experiences overshadowed any short-term withdrawal symptoms” and led to lasting positive changes beyond smoking cessation, including increased aesthetic appreciation and altruism.

Researchers also identified “preparatory counselling, strong rapport with the study team and a sense of momentum once engaged in the study” as important factors in achieving smoking abstinence.

The latest study, a double-blind randomized trial, involves psilocybin sessions as well as psychotherapy focused on pinpointing negative patterns of thought that can lead to behavioural and mental health problems.

Psilocybin may help break the addictive pattern of thoughts and behaviours that has become ingrained after years of smoking, researchers hypothesize, leading to lasting changes.

A Canadian public opinion survey conducted earlier this year found the majority of respondents are in favour of legalizing psilocybin therapy, with the support increasing once respondents are informed of research into psilocybin’s therapeutic potential.

Currently, psilocybin is illegal to possess, obtain or produce in Canada and is listed as a Schedule III controlled substance under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, the third-highest level of offence.


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