Using ‘Magic Mushrooms’ For OCD Treatment

If you happened to hike by a psilocybin mushroom emerging from the forest floor, you’d probably barely notice the ordinary-looking gilled brown fungi. 

Diana Oehrli
Diana Oehrli

But in fact, these “magic mushrooms” are currently one of the hottest subjects in psychiatric research. Scientists around the world are studying how the psychedelic compound psilocybin affects the brain and mind, as well as how it could be used therapeutically for a wide range of psychiatric disorders, from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder to anorexia. 

Soon this cutting-edge research will also be conducted at Rhode Island Hospital.

With a transformational grant of $450,000 from Diana Oehrli’s Gruben Charitable Foundation, Lifespan recently established the Psilocybin for OCD Research Program at its Norman Prince Neurosciences Institute.      

“In depression, psilocybin and ketamine seem to work by triggering brain changes much faster than with current treatment...”                                
  —Dr. Mohamed Sherif

Preparations are currently underway for a five-year pilot study investigating the efficacy of psilocybin for patients with treatment-resistant obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). The researchers are also planning to examine the changes induced by psilocybin by measuring brain wave activity using electroencephalogram, or EEG.    

The study is being led by Rhode Island Hospital psychiatrist Mohamed Sherif, MD, PhD, who has extensive experience researching the effects of the hallucinogenic ketamine on treatment-resistant depression. 

“In depression, psilocybin and ketamine seem to work by triggering brain changes much faster than with current treatment,” says Dr. Sherif. “In addition, psilocybin effects seem to be lasting longer. It is encouraging to examine psilocybin’s therapeutic potential in OCD as well.”

OCD is a natural starting place for his psilocybin research because Rhode Island Hospital and its partners for the project were one of the first to establish the surgical treatment for patients with treatment-refractory OCD. This population accounts for one in ten patients living with OCD. 

Dr. Sherif’s work is informed by a growing body of research supporting the therapeutic use of psilocybin. For example, he points out the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine studies that found that psilocybin could help terminally ill patients deal with anxiety about death.

“The [study] volunteers rated the psilocybin experience as having substantial personal meaning and spiritual significance and attributed the experience to sustained positive changes in attitudes and behavior,” researchers wrote. 

When Diana learned about Dr. Sherif’s interest in expanding his research to psilocybin, she immediately felt it fit well with her Foundation’s mission to fund programs and research related to mental health, addiction, and spirituality. 

“Often, health insurance doesn’t cover holistic or alternative approaches to healing, and that’s where I thought Gruben could come in,” says Diana, who is also a health coach, addiction recovery specialist, and author. “Psilocybin is in a way a medication, but it’s also a natural product.” 

magic mushrooms

Grant-Funded Research

Soon this cutting-edge research will also be conducted at Rhode Island Hospital.

Diana established her Foundation, named for a village in the Swiss Alps where she lives part of the year, in 2008 with funds from the Frederick Henry Prince Charitable Trust. She is the great-great granddaughter of Frederick Henry Prince, an entrepreneur who was successful in the investment banking and railroad industries. He and his wife, Abbie, became residents of Newport and lived in the Marble House until his death in 1953.

The Norman Prince Neurosciences Institute itself, which is where the psilocybin study will take place, was established thanks to a very generous gift from the Prince family’s primary trust. 

Dr. Sherif says that launching the study is a complex and lengthy task that is further complicated by psilocybin’s classification by the Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as a Schedule I substance. This means it currently has no accepted therapeutic use in the United States.

As such, years one and two of the study will focus on regulatory and logistic set up. Years three and four will include the recruitment and treatment of OCD patients who will be closely monitored by therapists and physicians before, during, and after their “trips.” 

The research has the potential to change the way psychiatrists treat complex cases of OCD and other mental illnesses.    

“From what I’m hearing, the initial research done with psilocybin is showing some amazing results,” Diana says, “and I am looking forward to seeing additional exciting advancements through this study.”