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Psychedelic drugs may be helpful in addressing anorexia: UCSD study

UC San Diego researchers Dr. Walter Kaye (left) and Stephanie Knatz-Peck (right) sit in a conference room at UCSD's Eating Disorders Center, August 1, 2023.
Matt Bowler
UC San Diego researchers Dr. Walter Kaye (left) and Stephanie Knatz Peck (right) sit in a conference room at UCSD's Eating Disorders Center, August 1, 2023.

Psychedelic drugs may help address eating disorders, according to new research from UC San Diego (UCSD) that saw patients taking a synthetic version of the drug found in mushrooms.

Psilocybin is the hallucinogen found in some mushrooms that temporarily alters someone’s consciousness. Past research has shown promise in the drug helping people with depression, alcoholism and post-traumatic stress disorder. A UCSD study published in Nature said it could also help people with anorexia nervosa. The condition causes people to substantially reduce their food intake and have a distorted view of  their body.

"We really don’t have treatments that treat from the inside out — that reverse core psychological symptoms," said Stephanie Knatz Peck, a psychologist and UCSD professor who worked on the study.


Knatz Peck said because there are no proven treatments, anorexia can be deadly and patients are looking for answers.

"I’ve treated enough people with anorexia to know that there’s a desperation there," Knatz Peck said. "When you’ve tried the same treatment four times or you’ve been in the hospital five times or been in a day treatment program seven times — you want something new and different."

Knatz Peck and Dr. Walter Kaye from UC San Diego’s Eating Disorders Center decided to try something new. They gave a high dose of synthetic psilocybin to 10 people to see if a psychedelic trip combined with supportive therapy could change the way they thought about themselves. 

"You’d see us encouraging people to put on eyeshades, headphones with music and just be with memories that come up, emotions that come up, and really focus on the inward not the outward," Knatz Peck said describing how peoples' 'trip' went. "Lots of people came out of the experience saying like, 'I spent so much time and energy thinking that my whole self worth was based on what I looked like or needing to be this weight otherwise I was worthless, and I have this reprioritization of what’s important for me — that’s not my full identity.'"

Four out of the 10 study participants showed significant drops in their eating disorder symptoms and the trend continued after three months.


"We’re not actually saying, 'Oh you have to eat — this is the way we’re getting you better,'" Knatz Peck said. "It’s more like how can we help your brain change in a way that might make it easier to change."

The study did not find a statistically significant effect on participants' body max index (BMI), but the psychological results were encouraging. 

"More research is needed to replicate (the study) in a larger, controlled trial, but that’s a really promising finding compared to what we currently have available for people," Knatz Peck said.

Kaye said one goal of the study was to see if psilocybin was safe for patients diagnosed with anorexia. He said it generally was — with some reporting minor side effects. Psilocybin is illegal in U.S. so special licenses had to be obtained for this research. Kaye is hoping the FDA will soon allow easier access for similar studies.

"I think this is promising enough that — I’ve been doing this for many years and we haven’t found much that (has) really changed thinking in people with anorexia," Kaye said.

Researchers said it was unclear during the early stages if one trip with supportive therapy was enough to make a lasting impact. Nine out of 10 people said they felt one dose was not enough. Researchers are currently part of a larger trial to find some of those answers, and they are looking for more participants.