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Effectiveness of psychedelics on alcohol use disorder the focus of U of C study


Researchers at the University of Calgary are embarking on the first-of-its-kind study to test the use of psilocybin as an effective treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD).

The work, which will be conducted at the Hotchkiss Brain Institute, aims to find 128 people with AUD, who will then be assigned to specialized therapists and undergo sessions before and after treatment.

Scientists say the study wants to determine if the combination of drugs and therapy will prove to be an effective treatment.

"Psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy is something that is widely talked about, but not everyone agrees on what it means. This is particularly true for the psychotherapy component," said Dr. Leah Mayo, principal investigator on the trial, in a news release.

"We want to start with psychotherapy, which is effective on its own for some in this population, and then determine if adding psilocybin will improve the effectiveness of treatment."

Mayo adds that psilocybin helps to open up what she calls a "therapeutic window of opportunity" that allows the brain to be more receptive to breaking negative behaviour habits.

“So instead of ‘here's a medication that you'll take, daily, every day forever,’ with psychedelics, it seems to be a very kind of short, intense period that might kind of change behavior, long-term for people,” she said.

“So it's not really about having to be medicated, but really helping provide an opportunity where they can change their behavior and then hopefully, you know, that on its own will be enough to sustain that long term.”

The psilocybin will be provided to participants of the study in small or large doses which will last eight hour long periods.

The drug will be used in combination with psychotherapy sessions that take place over the course of five weeks with the intent of evoking meaningful habit changes to reduce and stop the abusive use of alcohol.

Other experts on the trial said if it's effective, it could be monumental for AUD sufferers.

"I've worked with lots of people with alcohol problems. I've seen them struggle," said Dr. David Hodgins, U of C psychology professor and co-principal investigator on the study.

"I welcome improvements. I understand the appeal of the idea of psychedelic therapy, but we need science to support using it as a first line treatment."

Hodgins notes that the model of treatment being used in this study is called "motivational enhancement therapy" with the intent of creating long-term and sustained positive habits.

“People are more likely to be able to sustain that work, if they have a really good understanding and are very in touch with their own personal reasons that they might want to live their lives differently,” he said.

“So in addictions, the traditional model was very confrontational, that we would tell people that they have to break their denial and now tell them what they need to do. This approach really helps people identify for themselves, what reasons they have for wanting to make changes, and what strategies they want to develop to be successful.”

'A new lease on life'

John Greenwood struggled with alcohol use disorder for several years of his life, telling CTV News that he used the drug to mask the mental pain he was going through.

“I hid the fact that I was an alcoholic because I was full of shame, guilt and remorse, I felt like I couldn't let the world know because I didn't want to be looked at differently,” he said.

“It came to the simple point where as soon as I had one alcoholic drink, I didn't know where it was going to stop. It was scary. I was full of fear, but I couldn't share that fear with anybody because my ego wouldn’t let me.”

It took years of struggling for Greenwood to admit he needed help, but he said the road to his own personal recovery was more important than ever.

“When I finally realized that there was a massive problem, that I was gonna lose everything that I've worked for. I had to put my hand up and ask for help. That’s when things start to change.”

While Greenwood doesn’t agree with use of drugs such as psilocybin to aid in recovery, he does say that therapy and recovery were essential to understanding his true self.

“I think you need to do it with a clear mind without the use of most things and I think you have to do it for you. Don't be scared. Don't be anxious because the gifts of going into recovery will start showing themselves very, very quickly,” he said.

“I'm able to look at myself in the mirror now and be proud of who I am. It's given me a new lease on life and the community that comes along with recovery is like a big family where everyone has your back and people actually understand you.”

Former alcoholics like Jason Quilley understand more than ever the importance of having a community.

Through a journey of more than 20 years, he struggled with alcohol and drug addiction, and went to recovery on three different occasions.

He is now officially one year sober.

"It sounds kind of strange, but I pray to remember that I'm an alcoholic every morning. That’s the cornerstone of my recovery is that I remember that I need to get this treatment every day. If I don't do something to treat myself every day I will fall back into the same habits as always,” Quilley said.

“It’s impossible to do this on your own. It can stop. It doesn't have to be this way. It doesn't have to be the way that it is for you right now. You can change your life.”

Quilley has experimented with psilocybin in the past and although he’s sober now, he says he’s optimistic for others to benefit from treatments involving the drug.

“While psilocybin didn't allow me to stay sober, it did help me function in the world and I think it can be a magical formula for mental health,” he said.

“What worked for me might not work for somebody else, but as far as I’m concerned, the more options there are for people who decide to quit, the better it is for them to come somewhere and be safe.”

The study is supported by the Canadian Institutes in Health Research and Filament Health will be providing the psilocybin for the trial.

Those interested in participating can email Top Stories

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