Researchers look at psychedelics to treat addiction and depression

Jon Kostakopoulos was one of the first enrollees in the first-of-its-kind clinical trial to treat alcoholism with psychedelics.

"I couldn't stay sober with the other methods for more than a month or two. It was difficult to stop, to say the least," Kostakopoulos said. "Since my first session, I haven't had a drink." 

Kostakopoulos swears that the therapy sessions performed in the trial cured him of his alcohol addiction. He has battled the illness for more than a decade. Now he said he hasn't had a drink, let alone craved one since his therapy began in 2015.

The trial is an integral part of the new Center for Psychedelic Medicine at NYU Langone Health. The center aims to use psychedelics, like psilocybin, to reduce dependency on alcohol, mitigate major depression, and also ease the anxiety and discomfort associated with terminal illnesses.

"The goal of our center is to treat disorders that have a big public health impact," said Dr. Stephen Ross, an NYU addiction psychiatrist and the center's associate director.

Ross is one of the founders of the clinic and has been studying psychedelics for 15 years. This study is not about a bagged mushroom trip or even Ayahuasca.

"What people are getting in concerts or in the underground — who knows what it is. It could be the drug, it could be not. It could be adulterated with all kinds of things," Ross said. "We know exactly what we're giving — we know that it's safe."

Patients like Kostakopoulos go through an extensive screening process before being given the drug psilocybin, which comes in a pill form. Kostakopoulos took part in three sessions. Each began with headphones and a blindfold. During his first session, he confronted his addiction head-on.

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"I saw a glass liquor bottle in the middle of the desert and all of a sudden the glass disintegrated into the sand," Kostakopoulos said. And I just thought that was a very profound symbolism of my addiction leaving me. I have not had a drink or even craved one since."

The hope is that for many the treatment will shift their insight and get them to think in a different way. Kostakopoulos said it changed his life.

Ross said he actually treated Kostakopoulos as a patient in his private practice for years. 

"He was very young and had a very bad case of alcohol abuse. I thought he would prematurely die. He ended up having a very big experience," Ross said. "But I want to be cautious, not everyone will have a reaction where they no longer drink."

NYU Langone hopes to enter phase 3 of all its psychedelic trials in the next six to 12 months. After that, the center will petition the FDA to reclassify psychedelics away from being considered a Schedule I drug.

Schedule I Drug Definition

"Schedule I drugs, substances, or chemicals are defined as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse," the DEA states.

The DEA drug fact sheet for psilocybin, which has the common street names magic mushrooms, mushrooms, and shrooms, states that its psychological effects "include hallucinations and an inability to discern fantasy from reality. Panic reactions and a psychotic-like episode also may occur, particularly if a user ingests a high dose."

Center for Psychedelic Medicine Information

The center is part of NYU Langone's Department of Psychiatry, which is housed at Bellevue Hospital Center in Manhattan. It will have three transdisciplinary areas of focus: psychiatry, medicine, and preclinical research.

"The NYU Langone Center for Psychedelic Medicine will serve as the hub for NYU Langone's continuing efforts in psychedelics — work that already has garnered international acclaim, and which has been a major force in the field’s successful resurgence," NYU Langone Health said in a news release in February. "Past and current research focuses principally on the treatment of advanced cancer-related psychiatric and existential distress, addiction, major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)."

NYU Grossman School of Medicine | Department of Psychiatry | Bellevue Hospital Center | 462 First Avenue, A Building | New York, NY 10016 |

With FOX 5 NY Staff