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UAB researchers seek active cocaine users to determine hallucinogen's effects on addiction

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - Researchers with the University of Alabama are studying the impact psychedelic mushrooms could have in helping active cocaine users kick the habit. 

The study, led by Peter Hendricks, Ph.D. and Sara Lappan, Ph.D. with UAB's School of Public Health, investigates the hypothesis that a hallucinogenic compound found in certain mushrooms can the disrupt biochemical and psychological aspects of addiction and even increase a sense of spirituality. 

The study focuses on the effects of psilocybin, a compound taken from hallucinogenic psilocybe mushrooms.

Participants in the study are given the compound in pill form and are able to hallucinate in a controlled setting which is a calming room on the UAB campus under the close supervision of at least one of the researchers.

"With psychedelics, what has been shown is that the first experience is very meaningful, it's very intense," Lappan said. "And sometimes people don't need any follow up to that."

Researchers only give one dose of the psilocybin pill to study participants and spend several weeks preparing each participant for the moment they take the pill.

Lappan said she does not believe the pill will lead to hallucinogen addiction problems for participants.

"It's like taking 10 years of psychotherapy and smashing it into six hours," Lappan said. "It is not the kind of high you get from something like cocaine. And there have been other studies where the animals have unrestricted access to psilocybin and all they have to do is push a lever to receive it. And once they receive it once, they don't even push the lever again."

She said those animals studies showed repeated cocaine use when the animals were given unrestricted access to the drug and the animals would essentially overdose.

Some participants have had scary hallucinations after taking the pill; however, Lappan said she or her research partner stay in the room with each participant to comfort them and help them analyze their hallucinations after the effects have worn off. 

"After this potentially most meaningful experience of this person's life, it's important to take those insights and to take what they gathered and experienced while they're under the effect and make it into actionable change," Lappan said. "So this is very purposeful it is not something that all you have to do is ingest it and then everything is OK. We do a lot of work beforehand and after."

Lappan said many participants have lost their homes and family members as a result of their own addiction and participating in the study is far from their first attempt at quitting their cocaine addiction.

So far, 16 people have fully gone through the treatment and 20 people total have registered for the study. Lappan said the study has so far been successful and participants have been able to quit using cocaine for long periods of time after treatment.

Researchers need 24 more participants in order to complete the pilot phase of the study.

Active cocaine users who want to quit and would like to join the study can call UAB's School of Public Health at (205) 975-7721 for screening. All participant information is kept confidential, treatment is free and participants do receive financial incentives. 

If study results show that psilocybin is successful in curbing cocaine addiction, Lappan said the end goal would be to make it available to the public. That process could take several years.


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