Psilocybin Users Are Less Likely to Develop an Opioid Addiction, Study Finds
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Adults who have used psilocybin at some point in their lives are 30 percent less likely to develop problems with opioid use disorder (OUD), according to a new study from researchers at Harvard University.
Published today in the journal Scientific Reports, the study used data from a nationally representative survey of US adults to investigate the incidence of OUD and the prevalence of psychedelics use in the general population. They found that OUD was 30 percent less likely among those who had used psilocybin compared with those who had never used the drug, although this pattern was not found for any other common psychedelic drugs, such as LSD.
While the study design means that researchers could not determine if this association was causal, they say that the correlation highlighted in this research justifies the need for more clinical trials examining this potential relationship and whether it could one day be used to treat OUD.
Psilocybin users are less likely to experience OUD symptoms
The researchers gathered data from the 2015-2019 editions of the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), creating a pool of more than 214,500 survey responses to draw from.
Overall, 2,183 survey participants were found to have OUD, meaning that they abused or reported dependence on heroin or prescription pain relievers within 12 months of the survey date. The researchers also used the 11 criteria for OUD, including whether opioids caused serious trouble at home or at work, if the participants felt unable to cut down on opioid use, and whether they spent a great deal of time using or recovering from opioid use.
In total, 22,276 respondents reported having used psilocybin at some point in their lives. Of these, 46 percent also reported having used heroin or prescription pain relievers recreationally.
The researchers found that OUD was 30 percent less likely among the psilocybin users compared to their peers. Participants who reported having used psilocybin were also between 17 and 34 percent less likely to have experienced seven of the eleven symptoms of OUD within the past year.
These findings correlate with a previous landmark study that used data from the 2008 to 2013 NSDUH surveys. This earlier work found a 27 percent reduced risk of past-year opioid dependence and 40 percent reduced risk of past-year opioid abuse in respondents who had a history of psychedelics use.
Psilocybin solely associated with lowered odds of OUD
The authors speculate that psilocybin’s effect on the serotonin system could explain its protective association with OUD. Abnormal serotonin neurotransmission is linked to many aspects of addiction, including craving and heightened responses to drug cues. There is also evidence to suggest that serotonin agonists may indirectly inhibit the release of dopamine, a key neurotransmitter that is involved with the maladaptive reward system changes seen in addiction.
Additionally, some reports indicate that the mystical-type experiences induced by the psilocybin trip could help to combat addiction. In a recent trial of psilocybin for nicotine dependence, improvement was largely correlated with measures of mystical and spiritual significance. The authors say that it is possible that spiritual experiences related to psilocybin use could also play a role in lessening the odds of OUD.
Unlike the earlier study, which looked at psychedelics as a whole, this new work looked at each psychedelic individually. Interestingly, no significant associations were seen between other classic psychedelic drugs, such as peyote, mescaline, or LSD, and the likelihood of having OUD. Only psilocybin was associated with lowered odds of OUD and related symptoms.
Post-hoc analyses showed significant demographic differences between the psilocybin users who had and had not misused opioids, although these were accounted for in the central analysis. One possible explanation for psilocybin’s sole effect could be that demographic differences exist between psilocybin users and the users of other psychedelic compounds, which the researchers highlight as an avenue for future studies.
The dangers of opioid abuse
The investigation of new avenues to address and treat opioid misuse is a critical aspect of public health research. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were an estimated 100,306 drug overdose deaths recorded between April 2020 and April 2021. Opioids are thought to have been responsible for more than 75,600 of these.
Despite the US Department of Health and Human Services officially declaring these opioid-related excess deaths a “public health emergency” in 2017, the opioid crisis has largely continued to spiral. The coronavirus pandemic also appears to have worsened matters; May 2020 was the deadliest month on record, representing a nearly 60 percent increase in the number of opioid-related deaths compared to May 2019.
In addition to considering psychedelics as a potential treatment avenue for OUD, many scientists are also now beginning to examine whether cannabis could be an effective tool for curbing opioid-related harms.
The same previous landmark study which found a 40 percent reduced risk of past-year opioid abuse for psychedelics users also reported a 55 percent reduced risk in those with a history of cannabis use. More recently, studies have shown that people who inject opioids are less likely to overdose if they are also using cannabis as a pain management tool. Cannabis legalization has also been linked to a short-term reduction in the number of opioid-related emergency department visits made to state hospitals.