Researchers at The Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London will begin exploring psilocybin-assisted therapy as a treatment for gambling disorder this coming October, with the aim of improving their understanding of how brain function affects this condition. 

How Gambling Affects the Brain

The premier goal of this groundbreaking study is to detect and record the changes in the brain’s reward system during the time when volunteers engage in gambling-related activities, and gambling related stimuli. Half the volunteers will consist of men who are addicted to gambling. The other half will be men of the same age who are not — i.e. the ‘control group’.

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Before the commencement of the study the participants will have a health screening. They will then be given psilocybin in combination with talk therapy. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalography (EEG) the researchers will assess whether there are changes in the brain’s reward system while the volunteers are performing gambling tasks, as well as while watching gambling and non-gambling related videos. 

Study Could Help Treat All Addiction Disorders

The leading researchers include Professor David Nutt, Dr. Matt Wall, Dr. David Erritzoe and Rayyan Zafar, PhD, from Imperial College Centre for Psychedelic Research and Neuropsychopharmacology. They are optimistic that this study will help them to develop better and more effective treatments for those suffering with gambling disorders, as well as all addictive disorders. 

Zafar said;

“We’re super excited. We’ve been wanting to do this work for quite a while… Initially there will be five patients and then from next year onwards we’ll obviously ramp that up.”

Times Are A’Changing

The world-first clinical trial of its kind will be funded by the UK government. Up until this point there had been very little government-backed funding for psychedelic research in the UK. This new study marks a huge step forward in wider acceptance of psychedelic medicine. 

 “Maybe it’s a sign times are changing. It’s becoming more of a priority area and it’s no longer a fringe science.” Zafar said. 

Excitingly, this study could help the development of treatments that could, in the future, become available via the NHS. The National Health Service is the UK’s publicly funded healthcare system. 

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The researchers also hope that the study results will aid in the development of more advanced brain imaging methods. These would be able to simultaneously measure brain activity and brain messenger molecules. The development of more sophisticated brain imaging techniques will go beyond addiction research — it could advance the general field of brain science. 

Current Treatments Leave Much To Be Desired

At the present moment, the treatment for gambling disorder is lacking. Zafar explained;

“The current clinical treatment paradigm for gambling addiction in the UK is a psychosocial intervention. Such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) with some patients being prescribed naltrexone off-label. To date, there are no licensed pharmacological interventions for Gambling Disorder,”

He also outlined how this research could benefit a wide range of conditions relating to addiction — both substance-use related and behavioral. 

“Given the similarities in clinical and brain characteristics between substance use addictions and behavioral addictions we believe psychedelics may be able to target the same psychological and physiological mechanisms underlying this condition.”

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Psilocybin and Addiction Research

As you know if you’re a follower of psychedelic news, research into psilocybin’s potential to curb addiction is not new. Here are some of the stand-outs of the very recent past:

  • A study published in June 2023 found that the magic mushroom compound helped those with alcohol use disorder to overcome a number of stressors triggered by their addiction. Specifically, the study found that psilocybin;  “increases the malleability of self-related processing, and diminishes shame-based and self-critical thought patterns while improving affect regulation and reducing alcohol cravings,” 
  • In 2022, a study published in Nature found evidence that psychedelics could be a major tool in the struggle against opioid addiction. Psilocybin users, in particular, were up to 34% ess likely to suffer from opioid-use disorder.
  •  Another 2022 study, published in JAMA Psychiatry, found that psilocybin-assisted therapy may be effective in reducing heavy drinking in people with alcohol-use disorder. The impressive results showed that the patients in the group who were administered psilocybin reduced their heavy-drinking days by 83%.
  • . In 2014 Johns Hopkins helmed a pilot study that found that psilocybin-assisted therapy could help long-time smokers quit. In the 6 month follow-up 80% continued to abstain, making it far more effective than traditional quitting programs.

Are Magic Mushrooms the Answer?

With this growing bulk of evidence it is clear that psilocybin can be effective in the treatment of substance addiction, leading the researchers of this new study to be optimistic that magic mushrooms could also be the answer for gambling addiction. It is suggested that those with gambling addiction display similar brain characteristics to substance-related addiction such as alcohol or heroin.  

Exciting stuff! Addiction is a cage that many people struggle to get out of, even with the best intentions. With the power of psychedelics finally being wielded, who knows how far we can go in treating these conditions?