In experiments with rats, the hallucinogen psilocybin was able to prevent a relapse into drinking.
The hallucinogen psilocybin can prevent relapse into alcohol addiction in rats. That’s according to a study recently published in the journal Science Advances.
“We didn’t expect that,” Marcus Meinhardt from the Central Institute for Mental Health Mannheim (ZI) recalls the beginning of the research on rats addicted to alcohol twelve years ago. Similar to humans, addiction in these animals can decrease mental flexibility when making decisions. The biochemical background: Alcohol addiction reduces the production of a receptor for the nerve signaling substance glutamate in certain regions of the brain. Since the absence of this receptor persists during alcohol withdrawal, many dry addicts revert to excessive drinking. Together with his ZI colleagues Wolfgang Sommer and Rainer Spanagel, Marcus Meinhardt and a research team in Science Advances are now reporting that the hallucinogen psilocybin stimulates the production of the receptor again – and prevents relapses in the rats.
The team took a close look at a specific receptor, namely the “mGluR2”. The group saw in the brains of deceased alcoholics that the number of receptors was greatly reduced in around two-thirds of the cases. Since these slow down the release of glutamate, those affected may have had an excess of this neurotransmitter, which could increase addictive behavior and impair mental abilities. Meinhardt and his team also found a similarly reduced activity of mGluR2 in the comparable brain region of alcoholic rats. Only when the production of this receptor was reduced in the rodents’ brains did they develop a clear addiction to alcohol.
The hallucinogen psilocybin, which is found in Mexican mushrooms but can also be produced synthetically, managed to boost mGluR2 production again. It has a similar effect to the hallucinogen LSD and is currently being tested as a remedy for depression at the ZI in Mannheim and at the Charité in Berlin. In the rats, psilocybin not only drove mGluR2 production back to healthy animal levels, but also prevented relapses into addiction and improved their mental state. “With these experiments, we have opened a door to new treatment options for alcoholism,” Meinhardt is convinced. Clinical studies have to show whether the substance could have similar successes in alcoholics.