March 21, 2024

UCalgary researchers investigate the science of psilocybin-assisted treatment for alcohol use disorder

Clinical trial to explore potential of psychedelics combined with therapy to help someone reduce or stop drinking
Science of psilocybin-assisted treatment for alcohol use disorder
The clinical trial investigating psychedelic assisted therapy will include 128 people. Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

University of Calgary researchers are about to conduct the largest single-site clinical trial of its kind in Canada to find out whether combining a known therapy with psychedelics could be a viable treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD).

“Our study will help determine whether psilocybin combined with motivational enhancement therapy is a clinically feasible treatment for alcohol use disorder,” says Dr. Leah Mayo, PhD, principal investigator and Parker Chair in Psychedelics at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM). “We need to have scientific evidence about whether psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy is an effective intervention.”

Researchers will recruit 128 people diagnosed with AUD. Participants will be assigned to a specially trained therapist who will support them for the entire trial. Structured therapy sessions will be conducted before and after the psilocybin treatment. Mayo says the study will show whether a brief, intense therapeutic experience is enough for change to happen. 

“Psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy is something that is widely talking about, but not everyone agrees on what it means. This is particularly true for the 'psychotherapy' component,” says Mayo. “We want to start with psychotherapy, which is effective on its own for some in this population, and then determine if adding psilocybin will improve the effectiveness of treatment.”

Leah Mayo

Principal investigator Leah Mayo.

Mayo says one of the most important things in testing and developing new treatments is to develop a standardized protocol that can be replicated anywhere, so that the science can be validated and new interventions can emerge. Co-principal investigator Dr. David Hodgins, PhD, will train the therapists. 

“It’s important to collect solid and rigorous information on the use of psychedelic therapy,” says Hodgins, a psychologist and member of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute at the CSM. “Alcohol use disorder is complex. There isn’t one magic bullet that will be helpful for everyone. I’m interested in discovering whether this combination therapy could be an effective treatment for some.”

Alcohol use disorder is a medical condition where someone is unable to control or stop their drinking despite their drinking having negative consequences for their relationships, career or emotional well-being. Hodgins says motivational enhancement therapy focuses on having a person understand their personal motivations for trying to reduce the amount they drink, or stop drinking altogether. 

 Co-principal investigator Dr. David Hodgins

Co-principal investigator David Hodgins.

“I’ve worked with lots of people with alcohol problems. I’ve seen them struggle,” says Hodgins. “I welcome improvements. I understand the appeal of the idea of psychedelic therapy, but we need science to support using it as a first line treatment.”

Hodgins adds families and friends play a significant role in supporting someone who comes forward for treatment, and in helping them stay in treatment. However he says pressuring or forcing someone into treatment rarely works. 

The study is supported by the Canadian Institutes in Health Research. Filament Health is supplying safe, standardized, naturally-derived psychedelic medicines for the trial.

If you are interested in participating in the study, email

Leah Mayo, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM). She is the Parker Chair in Psychedelics and a member of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute and The Mathison Centre for Mental Health Research & Education at the CSM.

David Hodgins, PhD, is as a professor in the Department of Psychology, Faculty of Arts and an adjunct professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM). He is a member of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute and The Mathison Centre for Mental Health Research & Education at the CSM.

Hotchkiss Brain Institute

The Hotchkiss Brain Institute (HBI) consists of more than 300 scientists and clinician-scientists who are dedicated to advancing brain and mental health research and education. The institute leads the Brain and Mental Health research strategy at the University of Calgary, toward a better understanding of the brain and nervous system and new treatments for neurological and mental health disorders, aimed at improving quality of life and patient care. Learn more about the HBI.

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