Psychedelic therapy research gets first US government funding in 50 years
Johns Hopkins Medicine has been awarded a US$4 million grant by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to further clinical research investigating psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy to treat tobacco addiction. The grant is the first federal funding in half a century to be directed at clinical research on the therapeutic effects of a classical psychedelic.
The so-called psychedelic renaissance has been chugging away for around 20 years now and to date it has been mostly funded by non-profit organizations, wealthy philanthropists, and more recently for-profit companies trying to get a piece of the looming multi-billion dollar psychedelic medicine industry.
From MDMA for PTSD to psilocybin for depression, a number of promising new psychedelic therapies are on the precipice of clinical approval. Yet these substances are still classified as Schedule 1 drugs, considered to have no “accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse”.
The new grant, from the NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse, focuses on a three-year multisite clinical trial looking at how effectively psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy can help people quit smoking. Matthew Johnson, principle investigator on the project, has been investigating psilocybin as a tool for smoking cessation for well over a decade.
Johnson will lead the project with the clinical trial spanning three institutions – Johns Hopkins Medicine, the University of Alabama at Birmingham and New York University. The trial will follow similar protocols to other psilocybin-assisted therapy trials incorporating day-long psilocybin sessions into a larger multi-week protocol involving a number of psychotherapy sessions, before and after the active psychedelic sessions.
Peter Hendricks, who will be leading the University of Alabama at Birmingham arm of the trial, says modern smoking cessation treatments are only effective around 30 percent of the time. There is a huge need for better treatments and Hendricks is confident psilocybin-assisted therapy could save lives.
“We need to do better,” says Hendricks. “Psilocybin has the potential to significantly improve the effectiveness of smoking cessation treatments. Considering almost half a million Americans die from smoking every year, this could end up saving millions of lives, if not more.”
Johnson’s early work indicates great potential for psilocybin as a smoking cessation tool. An initial pilot study in 2014 found 80 percent of participants were still abstinent from smoking six months after the trial.
Of course, this preliminary research only recruited 15 subjects, so larger trials are necessary to obtain better data on efficacy. And this multi-million dollar federal grant will allow exactly that kind of expanded clinical needed to robustly explore this promising use of psychedelic therapy.
“The historical importance of this grant is monumental,” says Johnson. “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.”