Obsessive-compulsive order, or OCD, is the fourth most frequently diagnosed psychiatric disorder today, after phobias, depression and alcoholism. There are approximately 6 million people in the United States alone with the disorder, which is characterized by ritualistic repetition of certain behaviors such as washing and counting.
This study is the first to investigate the benefits of psilocybin, which is derived from illegal psychedelic mushrooms. The hallucinogen has some patients in the study able to walk barefoot on the floor -- an act that most patients with OCD would not be able to consider before being treated with the psilocybin -- and experiencing relief from other OCD symptoms. The results are temporary, usually lasting for about 24 hours after taking the lowest dose, but the scientists report one patient's symptoms went into remission for more than six months.
"I really think that participating in the study influenced the patient's remission," said Dr. Frances Moreno, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Arizona.
Some critics say the study had flawed methodology, for example, there was no other comparison drug in the test, which means the patients could have just responded to the care and attention given by the researchers. This would preclude any conclusions that may have been drawn from the study, said professor Jeffrey Schwartz of the University of California, Los Angeles, and might encourage suffering patients to look to it as a magic bullet cure. However, the study authors say the trial was only meant to demonstrate the safety of the compound.
All participants were given psychedelic drugs before the study, in order to increase the study's safety, Moreno said. Psilocybin's mind-altering affects had a significant impact on the patients, who described the hallucinogenic experience as "stressful" at times, but also described it as "psychologically and spiritually uplifting." They gave descriptions of past lives, distant planets, and conversations with deities encountered while taking the drug.
Dr. Paul Blenkiron, a consultant in adult psychiatry at Bootham Park Hospital, York, U.K, said the study did not prove the drug's safety, because the effects were only measured up to 24 hours.
"OCD is a chronic condition, not measurable in hours and days, but months and years," he said, adding, "About 12 percent of people can suffer flashbacks after less than 10 exposures (to psychedelic drugs) many years later, beyond the six months of this study, so long-term effects should be carefully assessed."
Professor Paul Salkovskis, of the Maudsley Hospital Centre for Anxiety Disorders in London, questioned the safety of giving someone with OCD -- which he said can already cause flashes of disturbing images, such as stabbing someone or worse -- a drug known to produce hallucinations.
Moreno admitted that a larger controlled study needed to be done for the actual efficacy of psilocybin on OCD to be determined.
"If the question is, 'did we find enough information to support exploring this further?' then we got some interesting findings which support the need for a proper controlled study," he said.