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Psilocybin seems to protect against opioid use disorders

A new study led by Harvard University has found that adults who had at some time in their lives used psilocybin – a psychoactive substance found in hallucinogenic mushrooms – are 30 percent less likely to develop opioid use disorders. These findings could pave the way towards safer and more effective therapeutic interventions in the treatment of substance abuse. 

“Opioid use disorder (OUD) is a major public health crisis, with nearly 70,000 opioid-related deaths in the United States in 2017 alone, representing a 292 percent increase since 2001. Opioids, including heroin, fentanyl, and prescription opioid compounds, are responsible for approximately 70 percent of all overdose deaths in the United States. Additionally, over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, mortality related to opioid overdoses has reached alarming new highs, with the largest increases among members of racial and ethnic minority groups, as well as in areas of socioeconomic disadvantage,” explained the study authors.

Since OUD is currently treated through other synthetic opiate derivatives such as methadone or buprenorphine – which come with a high risk of dependence too – new treatments are urgently needed in order to mitigate the rampant opioid crisis society currently faces. 

By using a nationally representative survey of U.S. adults comprising of 214,505 participants, the researchers investigated the incidence of opioid use disorder and prevalence of psychedelic use among the participants, and found that OUD was 30 percent less likely to occur among individuals who had used psilocybin. Moreover, psilocybin users were between 17 and 34 percent less likely to have experienced seven of the 11 symptoms of opioid abuse and dependence in the past year, compared to participants who never used this psychedelic substance. Surprisingly, no associations were found between the use of LSD, peyote, or mescaline and the likelihood of OUD.

The scientists speculate that psilocybin might protect against OUD by modulating the circulation of neurotransmitters previously found to be associated with addiction, such as serotonin and dopamine. Moreover, the mystical and spiritual experiences induced by psychedelic drugs could act as major factors in decreasing the likelihood of users developing OUD. 

Further research is needed – including longitudinal clinical trials – to test whether this association is indeed causal, and to identify which mediators might be responsible for this correlation. Moreover, since other psychedelic substances such as mescaline or LSD do not seem to protect against OUD, more in-depth studies on the specificity of psilocybin and its differences from other psychoactive drugs are also necessary.

The study is published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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