Exploiting LSD's benefits


Controversial as it seems, controlled clinical trials of LSD have shown it to cure psychosis

SCIENTISTS ARE exploring the use of psychedelic drugs such as LSD to treat a range of ailments from depression to cluster headaches and obsessive compulsive disorder.

The first clinical trial using LSD since the 1970s began in Switzerland in June. It aims to use "psychedelic psychotherapy" to help patients with terminal illnesses come to terms with their imminent mortality and so improve their quality of life.

Another psychedelic substance, psilocybin - the active ingredient in magic mushrooms - has shown promising results in trials for treating symptoms of terminal cancer patients. And researchers are using MDMA (ecstasy) as an experimental treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.

In the Swiss trial, eight subjects will receive a dose of 200 microgrammes of LSD. This is enough to induce a powerful psychedelic experience and is comparable to what would be found in an "acid tab" bought from a street drug dealer. A further four subjects will receive a dose of 20 microgrammes.

Each participant will know they have received some LSD, but neither the subjects nor the researchers observing them will know who received the full dose. During the course of therapy, researchers will assess the patients' anxiety levels, quality of life and pain levels.

Before hallucinogenic drugs became popular with the counter culture, they were at the forefront of brain science. They were used to help scientists understand the nature of consciousness and how the brain works, and as treatments for a range of conditions including alcohol dependence.

The way hallucinogens such as LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), psilocybin and mescaline (the active ingredient in the peyote cactus) act on the brain is well understood by scientists. The drugs stick to chemical receptors on nerve cells that normally bind the neurotransmitter serotonin, which affects a broad range of brain activities.

But how this leads to the profoundly altered states of consciousness, perception and mood that typically accompany a "trip" is not known.

Prof Roland Griffiths at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland recently published a study of 36 healthy volunteers who were given psilocybin and then observed in the lab. The participants' were aged 24-64 and none had taken hallucinogens before.

When the group was interviewed again 14 months later, 58 per cent said they rated the experience as being among the five most personally meaningful of their lives, 67 per cent said it was in their top five spiritual experiences, and 64 per cent said it had increased their wellbeing or life satisfaction.

"The working hypothesis is that if psilocybin or LSD can occasion these experiences of great personal meaning and spiritual significance, then it would allow [patients with terminal illnesses] hopefully to face their own demise completely differently - to restructure some of the psychological angst that so often occurs concurrently with severe disease," says Griffiths.

Pamela Sakuda was diagnosed with stage 4 colorectal cancer in December 2002. Her husband says the psilocybin treatment transformed her outlook. "Pamela had lost hope. She wasn't able to make plans for the future. She wasn't able to engage the day as if she had a future left," he says. Her "epiphany" during the treatment was the realisation that her fear about the disease was destroying the remaining time she had left, he says.

Despite fears that psychedelic drugs can induce psychosis, they are comparatively safe when administered with precautions and with trained medical professionals present, according to a manual for studying their effects, which was recently published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.

They do have a powerful effect on a person's perception and consciousness and cannot be considered "safe", but they are almost entirely non-toxic, they virtually never lead to addiction and they only rarely lead to long-lasting psychosis (usually in people with a family history of mental illness).

- (Guardian service)