How Magic Mushrooms Can Help Smokers Kick The Habit Magic mushrooms — they're not just for getting weird with your friends. Researchers are increasingly looking at psychedelics to treat conditions such as depression and addiction.
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How Magic Mushrooms Can Help Smokers Kick The Habit

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How Magic Mushrooms Can Help Smokers Kick The Habit

How Magic Mushrooms Can Help Smokers Kick The Habit

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MADDIE SOFIA, HOST:

You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

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SOFIA: Hey, everybody. Welcome to the first episode of SHORT WAVE, NPR's new daily science podcast. I'm your host Maddie Sofia. Nice to meet you. And today I want to introduce you to Carine Chen-McLaughlin

CARINE CHEN-MCLAUGHLIN: I started smoking the summer after my freshman year in college.

SOFIA: Carine's a semiretired social worker in Baltimore.

CHEN-MCLAUGHLIN: You know, this is 1971. Everyone smoked.

SOFIA: She's smoked for over 40 years. And she's tried to quit a lot - like, 20 or 30 times. But she's always gone back.

CHEN-MCLAUGHLIN: It's my friend. It's one of my oldest, dearest friends. You know, it was there for me. And to not have that relationship was very, very scary.

SOFIA: Then she heard about this clinical trial to treat nicotine addiction with something a little unusual.

Had you ever done mushrooms before in your life, like for fun?

CHEN-MCLAUGHLIN: No. Nope.

SOFIA: (Laughter) Well, she's done them now. Well, not, like, actual magic mushrooms but a little pill of psilocybin, the thing in 'shrooms that makes you trip.

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SOFIA: Today on the show - magic mushrooms. They're not just for getting weird with your friends. For some people, it could be a life-altering therapy.

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SOFIA: OK. So Carine didn't just, like, show up and take this psilocybin pill. As part of the trial, she spent weeks prepping with researchers, undergoing tests and hours and hours of talking about why she smoked. And then it was game time.

Let's talk about the big day. Were you nervous before you went in?

CHEN-MCLAUGHLIN: Oh, yeah. Definitely. Yes (laughter), very nervous.

SOFIA: So...

CHEN-MCLAUGHLIN: Well, I wouldn't say, like, shaking-in-my-boots nervous. You know, I felt safe. I felt that even if I had a bad, bad reaction, there are lots of people around me. I knew, you know, most of the people just because I've been going there for months. So I didn't feel like they would let anything happen to me. But I was nervous just because I didn't know what to expect.

SOFIA: Sure, sure. OK, so take me through that day a little bit. What happens when you got to the clinic?

CHEN-MCLAUGHLIN: Well, I took the pill about 8:45, I think. And then about a half hour to 40 minutes - things started floating (laughter). You know, and I said, things are starting to look kind of strange. So I closed my eyes at that point, and I pretty much kept my eyes closed until the very end.

But the biggest part - and I even get nervous when I talk about it now - is how scary the whole experience was. The overwhelming feeling I had was fear. I saw monsters. I saw aliens. I had these big, gray, puffy clouds I kept sinking in from the ceiling, and I thought I was going to suffocate. And I spent most of my time crying, sobbing, not talking a whole lot because apparently what everyone goes through is pretty much in your head.

SOFIA: So you weren't talking about cigarettes with the clinicians while you were in this trip?

CHEN-MCLAUGHLIN: No, not at all. Nope.

SOFIA: That's so interesting.

CHEN-MCLAUGHLIN: Nope. And lots of people asked me that, and I was like, you know (laughter), no - nope. They just - they were there just for me.

SOFIA: What were some of the thoughts? I mean, you said you were really afraid, but were you also processing things? Were you, like, having revelations? What was your mind space there?

CHEN-MCLAUGHLIN: So all I was doing is processing the feelings that I had in order to let go of the two things I was trying to let go - one was to quit smoking and one was to stop working at a job I've had for 23 years. And when I woke up, it was like I was processed out. I was exhausted. And I wasn't scared anymore.

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SOFIA: If you're like me, you're wondering how do monsters and aliens and scary clouds help you stop smoking? So we went to Johns Hopkins University to learn more about the science.

Oh.

MATTHEW JOHNSON: That's one.

SOFIA: That's nice.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yes.

SOFIA: I met up with Matthew Johnson. He's the experimental psychologist who led Carine's study. He brought me into one of the trip rooms.

JOHNSON: It's been described as a posh yoga studio (laughter).

SOFIA: There's this big comfy couch for the patient, some nice soft lighting. Honestly, it seemed like a good place to trip.

JOHNSON: Hopefully nothing is too cliche psychedelic. We try to avoid that. But we do have evocative art.

SOFIA: Yeah, what's that bird doing? I don't know about that bird.

JOHNSON: I mean, it might look different after 30 milligrams of psilocybin.

SOFIA: Biologically, that's a safe dose for the average person. But to be clear - 30 milligrams is a lot of psilocybin.

JOHNSON: This has been called a heroic dose.

SOFIA: (Laughter).

Matt made it very clear that people should not try this at home.

So, like, scientifically, what is going on inside Carine's brain after she took the dose of psilocybin?

JOHNSON: We know that psilocybin causes the brain to essentially talk with itself in a very different way.

SOFIA: They're still figuring it out. But so far, it seems like parts of the brain that don't normally communicate to each other seem to communicate more, and parts of the brain that normally do talk to each other talk less. Matt described it kind of like, if you're living in a city, you stop talking to your neighbors, and you start talking to people way across town that you normally don't talk to.

JOHNSON: And that can lead to novel ways of looking at oneself, thinking about the world in a different way, having insightful experiences.

SOFIA: Matt says psilocybin can help people kind of reframe the way they think about themselves and what's really important in their lives.

JOHNSON: So people are essentially stuck thinking about themselves in a very particular and suboptimal way. Like, I've tried to quit smoking dozens of times. I'm just a smoker. That's just the way the world is. So there's this greater ability to see kind of the big picture and to not be kind of sucked into momentary temptations.

SOFIA: That's kind of how it worked for Carine, like, within hours after her trip.

CHEN-MCLAUGHLIN: We went out to dinner, and I wasn't really hungry. I just want to go home. And my husband's like, can I have a cigarette? And I said, sure. And I said to myself, well, let me just take a puff. Because smokers say this to themselves - I will just take a puff. And my hand would not let me touch that cigarette. To this day, if you paid me a million dollars to touch a cigarette with my hand, I cannot. I've tried.

SOFIA: Wow. I mean, that's wild. That's 47 years of smoking. This therapy - and then you can't even touch them. Why do you think it worked, Carine?

CHEN-MCLAUGHLIN: I think something in my brain got turned off. It's not scary. It's not disgusting. I mean, I don't find cigarette smoking disgusting. I mean, I know I sound kind of weird. A lot of people - ex-smokers do; I don't. But no, I have almost neutral feelings. I just can't do it.

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SOFIA: It's been a year and a half since Carine's trip, and Carine is still smoke-free. And she's not alone. Matt's first small study was extremely promising. So now they're doing a larger, more rigorous trial comparing the nicotine patch to psilocybin. And now, the results are still coming in, but right now half of the people that took psilocybin are smoke-free after a year, and that's about twice as effective as the patch. And that's pretty impressive. But some things to think about - the treatment is really expensive, and the whole process takes months; plus, not everybody should use psilocybin.

JOHNSON: Some people should never do these things because they have a predisposition for schizophrenia or other psychotic illnesses. And it seems pretty convincing that this can harm people that have that predisposition.

SOFIA: And another important thing - there aren't a ton of these studies. But money is pouring into psychedelic research.

JOHNSON: So I've been doing it for 15 years. Our program here at Hopkins has been doing it a little bit longer than that. But in the last few years, all of a sudden, you know, we're not so lonely, which is what we've always wanted.

SOFIA: And it isn't just researchers. This year, Oakland and Denver decriminalized magic mushrooms, and there are similar efforts right now in Oregon.

Why do you think, like, everyday people are willing to give psychedelics kind of another shot?

JOHNSON: A lot of reasons. I think a part of the backdrop in terms of the treatment of mental health is that, you know, we're in the middle of an opioid crisis and a suicide crisis, you know, which is obviously resulting from depression. So depression and addiction are major causes of death in our society. And it's not getting better; it's getting worse. So I think there's a broader societal recognition that we need to be creative and not dismiss things because of arbitrary associations.

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SOFIA: This has been NPR SHORT WAVE. I'm Maddie Sofia. See you tomorrow.

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