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LSD in Research

Chapter 5
LSD in Research

In the late 1940s LSD was introduced as a psychiatric wonder drug that could cure or alleviate numerous problems, including alcoholism, criminal behavior, depression, schizophrenia, and even the pain, anxiety, and fear associated with terminal illness. During the 1950s and early 1960s, scientific research with LSD was accepted as mainstream science, and approximately forty thousand patients received LSD as a part of their psychiatric or psychological therapy. Over this same time period, six international conferences were held and more than one thousand scientific papers and several dozen books were written about the use of LSD in medical psychiatry.

As concerns about the dangers of LSD grew, the United States and other governments became increasingly unwilling to fund research projects involving the drug. By the 1990s, research into LSD and other hallucinogens had dwindled to almost nothing. Now a small group of scientists are once again looking to conduct research into the possible medical benefits of LSD and other hallucinogens. While many of their efforts are based on new discoveries about the mind, these scientists are attempting to build support for their research based on much of the early LSD treatment approaches and research.

Early LSD Treatments

Long before the advent of LSD, patients with severe and persistent mental illness underwent drastic treatments that sometimes harmed them. Schizophrenia was often treated with insulin shock therapy, injections of insulin that cause convulsions. Electroconvulsive therapy, which results in memory loss and other side effects, was widely used to treat depression. In extreme cases, mentally ill patients received a lobotomy, a major surgery in which doctors operated on the frontal lobe of their brain. Overall, the effectiveness of these therapies was questionable and the risks were great.

In the first half of the twentieth century, doctors treated some cases of depression, addiction, and other mental illnesses with psychotherapy, which has fewer risks. This treatment involves a patient talking with a therapist to help solve psychological or behavioral problems. Patients are encouraged to recall childhood memories and explore their subconscious thoughts and feelings in order to uncover the sources of their problems. This approach, however, can take weeks, months, or years to produce results.

Since the late 1940s psychiatrists have had great expectations for the usefulness of LSD in psychotherapy. Researcher Leigh A. Henderson summed up the psychiatric community's goals for LSD this way:

LSD was expected to shorten the lengthy and expensive process of psychotherapy; it would enable patients to recall the childhood experiences and unconscious material that often did not emerge for months or years in conventional psychotherapy. LSD was a drug that would effect fundamental changes in attitudes and personality, not just a reduction in the outward symptoms of mental illness. It was expected to be of particular value in patients who were resistant to more conventional therapies.58

Two primary approaches emerged for using LSD therapy. Psycholytic therapy used small doses (approximately 50 micrograms) of LSD in a series of sessions. This type of therapy was used in addition to normal psychotherapy. Psycholytic therapy was primarily used in Europe and was thought to help loosen the mind and remove blocks that kept patients from responding to standard psychotherapy. Therapists also believed that the use of LSD helped patients recall childhood memories and explore their subconscious.

The second approach is called psychedelic therapy and involved high doses (up to approximately 250 micrograms) of LSD. Practiced primarily in the United States, psychedelic therapy was designed to be used only a few times and to cause a profound psychological experience. Therapists believed that the experience would be so intense that it would cause a permanent change in the patient's personality and thought processes, leading to a type of conversion to a new life. Researcher Dr. Stanislav Grof thought that psychedelic therapy probably produced an "ecstatic state" with "feelings of unity with other people, nature, the entire universe and God."59 Overall, researchers believed that patients would become less depressed, anxious, guilty, and angry and, at the same time, more self-tolerant and aware.

Criticism of LSD Therapy

Because LSD's effects are powerful and difficult to control even in a medical setting, many in the medical community took, and continue to take, a strong stance against LSD therapy, saying it is too dangerous. According to pioneering LSD researcher Dr. Oscar Janiger, who began studying LSD in the 1950s, doctors did not learn how to control the unpredictable nature of the drug:

LSD didn't pan out as an acceptable therapeutic drug for one reason. Researchers didn't realize the explosive nature of the drug. You can't manipulate it as skillfully as you would like. It's like atomic energy—it's relatively easy to make a bomb, but much harder to safely drive an engine and make light. And with LSD we didn't have the chance to experiment and fully establish how to make it do positive, useful things.60

Critics of LSD therapy continue to believe that the potential risks of LSD therapy far outweigh the benefits. They say that nothing good could result from a drug that could potentially cause mental problems such as delirium or psychoses. Noting that LSD and other hallucinogens have long-term consequences in healthy people, Dr. Gregory Collins, an alcohol- and drug-recovery expert, commented, "I would be reluctant to try them in the mentally ill."61

LSD and Safety in Research

In an effort to answer concerns about the short-term and long-term safety of LSD research, a follow-up study of LSD experiments conducted by Janiger from 1954 to 1962 was funded by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). The organization has a membership of 1,600, including many prominent research scientists. According to Harvard-trained social scientist and founder of MAPS, Rick Doblin, Janiger's early research was important because it focused on the effects of LSD in relatively healthy people who were not psychiatric patients. This meant that the results of the experiments could be attributed to LSD, not to illness.

The follow-up study included interviews with forty-five of the people who participated in Janiger's studies. The average age of these people at the time of their interviews was over seventy. The MAPS-sponsored study found that relatively few short-term adverse effects, such as loss of identity, were associated with Janiger's research. The study report, published in 1999, noted:

In approximately five interviews, adverse effects were reported during the LSD experiences, even though these experiences were considered, on balance, positive. These adverse effects ranged from having physical pain to a temporary loss of identity to psychological discomfort with a perceived inhospitable set and setting. In each case, these adverse effects did not preclude these respondents from reporting that the LSD experience was, on balance, positive.62

One person from the past studies did experience mildly disturbing flashbacks that lasted from six months to one year. The study authors noted that previous study reviews of LSD patients conducted in 1960, 1971, and 1984 also reported relatively few adverse persistent symptoms.

The Greatest Misconception About LSD

Dr. Stanislav Grof explored the use of LSD as a therapy at the Psychiatric Research Institute in Prague until the mid-1960s and then at Johns Hopkins University until 1973. He worked closely with LSD and conducted more than four thousand sessions of psychedelic therapy. When asked by interviewer Jerry Snider what he thought the greatest misconception about LSD was, Grof replied:

I would say these two reactions reflect the basic misconception, that LSD is either good or bad. It is neither. By itself, LSD has no intrinsic healing potential, nor does it have any intrinsic destructive potential. The outcome depends on who is doing it, with whom, for what purpose and under what circumstances. Yet everything that happens under the influence of LSD tends to be credited or blamed on the drug itself.

Years ago . . . I had a very interesting discussion with Humphrey Osmond, one of the early pioneers of LSD research. He pointed out . . . that LSD is just a tool. He said if the worth of some other tool, a knife for instance, was discussed in the same way LSD was, you'd have a policeman saying it was bad, while pushing statistics of people killed with knives in back alleys. A surgeon would see it as good, pointing out the healing possibilities of the knife. A housewife might talk about cutting salami. An artist might talk about woodcarving. As you can see, what is being said says less about the knife than about how it is used. We don't make the mistake of blaming or crediting the knife with how it's used, but with LSD it's all kind of thrown together.

The Effectiveness of LSD Therapy Remains Unknown

Although most of Janiger's healthy research subjects had positive experiences, the majority reported that they did not think there were any long-lasting benefits. Only a few said they thought the experience had long-term positive effects, such as providing a more positive outlook on life. In contrast, results of LSD psycholytic therapy research from 1988 to 1993 by the Swiss Medical Society for Psycholytic Therapy were more positive.

Unlike the healthy patients in Janiger's study, some of the patients (38 percent) in the Swiss study were diagnosed with personality disorder. This disorder is characterized by a set of traits that combine to negatively affect a person's life and may include poor self-image, inability to have good relationships with other people, and impulsive behavior. Many patients also had adjustment disorders, in which a person trying to adjust to a stressful event experiences depression and anxiety. The final major disorder that patients in the study suffered from were affective disorders, such as manic depression.

In 1994 and 1995, a follow-up study was conducted of 171 patients who participated in the Swiss study. Overall, nine out of ten of the patients reported to have good or slight improvement concerning their psychiatric problems. In interviews with the patients, 46.3 percent of them reported good improvement following psycholytic treatment, and 38.8 percent reported a slight improvement in their condition. No change in their condition was reported by 5.8 percent in the study, and 4.2 percent reported that they felt their condition had worsened.

According to the author of the follow-up report, Dr. Peter Gasser, the Swiss study still does not prove that the psycholytic therapy was effective. He noted that to prove effectiveness, new and better designed studies would have to be made. For example, this study did not compare the results of patients treated with LSD to those of control groups or to those of patients who had received different kinds of treatments or no drugs at all. Such comparisons are important because they provide evidence that it was the LSD producing the effects and not some other factor, such as patients' expectations that the drug would cure them. Dr. Gasser said, "A different study design would be needed to obtain more persuasive evidence of efficacy. Such a design would require testing subjects before and after treatment, and randomly assigning subjects to treatment and control groups."63

Flaws in Research

In fact, reviews of LSD research have shown that many of the early studies had serious flaws compared to studies using current research standards. In the early studies researchers usually knew who was taking LSD, which could influence their judgment concerning how effective the results were. For example, if the researchers already believed the drug worked, they might be more likely to interpret results as being positive in the patients who took LSD. Many of the researchers did not define in clear terms exactly how the patients improved. For example, in evaluating alcoholic patients, they would need to define factors such as how long the patients stayed off of alcohol or how much they reduced their consumption. Because of these flaws, critics said that it was uncertain whether or not LSD was the primary factor in bringing about improvements in patients.

According to Dr. Harrison Pope, a psychiatrist and professor at Harvard University who is interested in LSD's effects on anxiety, scientists hoping to pursue human research with LSD have to be careful. In an ABC News article, Pope noted, "It is essential that any studies in this area be performed with the most rigorous modern methods and great care to have an impartial approach."64 For example, when Pope proposed a study of LSD-assisted therapy to reduce fear and anxiety in dying patients, he said that some patients would be given a placebo, that is, a pill that has no effect on the person taking it. This approach allows researchers to more fairly evaluate the results of their study.

Summing up the debate over research involving LSD and other hallucinogens, Pope noted, "The challenge is to design the study in such a way, that if the drug shows benefits, skeptics are convinced, and if it doesn't help, proponents of hallucinogenic use don't challenge the research as inadequate."65

LSD, Alcoholism, and Addiction

A small number of scientists in the United States, including Dr. Pope, are seeking to re-establish LSD research to prove whether or not it can be effective in helping some patients. One of these scientists, Dr. Richard Yensen, has served on the faculties of Harvard Medical School and Johns Hopkins University and conducted government-approved LSD experiments in Maryland in the 1970s. He is trying once again to get government approval to study LSD-assisted psychotherapy with substance abusers. Yensen has designed his proposed studies to comply with today's rigorous research standards.

Yensen says that past research with alcoholics and heroin addicts shows that LSD has potential to help treat substance abusers. For example, psychiatrists and psychologists typically used LSD therapy to provide alcoholic patients with an emotional awakening, or "peak experience," which would help convert patients to sobriety. In LSD Psychotherapy, author W.V. Caldwell defined the LSD peak experience as "a religious sense of at-oneness, a resurgence of faith and hope, and a radiant affirmation of the value of life."66

Yensen has noted that he believes the peak experience can give addicts the determination they need to stop using drugs or alcohol. According to Yensen and his colleague Dr. Donna Dryer, a review of early studies has shown that 53 percent of patients receiving high-dose psychedelic therapy reported that they quit using alcohol, compared to 33 percent who received low-dose therapy. Only 12 percent who had conventional therapy with no LSD reported quitting.

LSD and the CIA

The psychiatric profession was not the only group interested in researching LSD. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was looking for a speech-inducing drug that it could use as a type of truth serum on suspected foreign agents. Over three decades, the CIA conducted more than four hundred experiments with LSD in U.S. and Canadian hospitals, prisons, universities, and military installations and at their own safe houses in Washington, New York, and San Francisco.

Although research indicated that LSD was an unreliable truth serum, the CIA thought that the military could possibly use LSD against an entire population to produce temporary mass hysteria or uncontrollable fear. As noted by Tad Szule in a 1977 Psychology Today article, "The CIA's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," the CIA once reported, "The lysergic-acid derivative can produce a temporary state of severe imbalance, hysteria, insanity. . . . Conceivably, this might be an unusually merciful agent of warfare: temporarily nullifying the individual's effectiveness, but not permanently damaging him."

The CIA's experiments, conducted under the names ARTICHOKE and Project MK-Ultra, took a wrong turn when a forty-three-year-old civilian biochemist employed by the Army Medical Corps committed suicide nine days after taking the drug. The man jumped out of a hotel window in New York City, where he had been taken for treatment after becoming depressed following his LSD use.

The CIA temporarily halted further experimentation but soon began to study the drug again. When CIA inspector general John Earman discovered the secret testing program in 1966, he recommended halting the tests. They were deemed unethical and phased out over the next decade.

Perhaps the most impressive of the early research were two Canadian studies by Dr. S.E. Jensen published in 1963. These studies showed a 75 percent improvement in alcoholic patients after they received a single large dose of LSD. An important aspect of Jensen's studies was that they addressed some of the criticisms concerning LSD therapy and research. In LSD—The Problem-Solving Psychedelic, authors P.G. Stafford and B.H. Golightly, noting the objections about inadequate testing procedures, said, "Dr. S.E. Jensen of the Saskatchewan Hospital, Weyburn, reported an excellent controlled experiment dealing with some of the most difficult cases." They added,

LSD, the Doctor-Patient Relationship, and Dying

Dr. Richard Yensen, who began studying LSD in the 1970s, believes that LSD-assisted therapy could have many benefits. But he also says that the drug is not a cure-all. In fact, he does not even think the drug itself is the key to success in most types of LSD-assisted therapy. According to Yensen, LSD therapy that is practiced correctly harkens back to an older era of medicine in which the doctor-patient relationship was emphasized:

The doctor-patient relationship is the key to successful treatments incorporating LSD. There are as many relationships as there are doctors and patients. If the relationship is not good the likelihood for a negative or difficult experience is high. If the relationship is good, even if the experience is difficult, the person is likely to derive benefit from it.

Yensen also says his past research indicates that LSD-assisted therapy and a good doctor-patient relationship allow patients to work through the idea of dying and explore in depth the way they think about death. Yensen noted in a 2004 interview with the author:

We're talking about an opportunity to examine ideas, to examine where the person came to feel the way they feel about death or life or themselves. And, when they can do that and break through to positive experiences of a mystical sort, their entire picture improves—fear of death diminishes, their zest for living increases, their requirements for pain medication decreases. Whether they say they are in objectively less pain or the same pain as before, they require less medicine because they basically want to be alive and alert for the whole process of dying. Their orientation shifts towards what they can give to the living and away from so much focus on the sadness of their plight.

One group of alcoholics was put in the hands of psychiatrists who did not use LSD. Another group was prepared for LSD treatment, but not given it, while a third group—after identical preparation—was given the drug. The criteria for "much improved" were stiff: "complete abstinence at the time of the follow-up."67

However, some scientists point out that the patients in this study may have improved on their own or as a result of other components of the treatment program.

LSD and Dying

Another area of interest is LSD-assisted psychotherapy in the treatment of depression and anxiety in cancer patients. Early LSD research reported good results using LSD to help people who were suffering from a painful terminal illness. In fact, the results of using LSD to help with pain and fear were so promising that studies in this area by Richard Yensen and others were among the last to be discontinued in the early 1980s.

One of the early pioneers of this research was Dr. Eric C. Kast. In 1964 he published a series of reports through the American Medical Association on the administration of LSD to more than 150 patients who were dying, primarily from cancer. Kast noted that LSD was as effective as other drugs in relieving pain and that the effects lasted much longer, even after the LSD trip was over. Furthermore many of the patients were better able to deal with the pain after it returned. As noted by Kast, freedom from pain lasted ninety-two hours with 100 micrograms of LSD as compared to two or three hours with painkilling narcotics. Several other studies obtained similar results.

Kast and others did question the morality of interfering with the very personal process of dying. In his last study of 128 people, seven said that they resented the use of LSD because it changed their concepts of life and death. The majority, however, said they were gratified and had gained deeper insights into life and death. Kast noted, "In human terms, the short but profound impact of LSD on the dying was impressive."68

A New Era in LSD Research

In addition to pursuing the use of LSD in therapy, scientists are currently conducting new avenues of investigation. Researchers interested in studying LSD note that science has greatly advanced over the past several decades and provides a new and better understanding of the brain's neurochemistry and how it affects human thought, emotions, and behavior. They believe that observing the effects of LSD on the brain can give them insight into human behavior and mental illness. Writing in a 1994 National Institute on Drug Abuse report, Dr. Stephen Szara, who was chief of the institute's biomedical research branch at the time, stated, "Recent advances in the neurosciences and cognitive sciences have created opportunities for using hallucinogens as tools in attacking the supreme mystery: How does the brain work?"69

LSD and the Brain

Some researchers believe that new medical technology and advances in molecular biology combined with LSD studies can provide insights into how the brain functions. These insights may lead to the development of new medications for a variety of problems. One area of research focuses on the neurotransmitter serotonin, which LSD is known to affect.

Huxley, LSD, and Dying

Renowned author Aldous Huxley, who wrote Brave New World, among many other works, was profoundly interested in the phenomenon of dying and in the religious and mystical experiences induced by drugs like LSD. Huxley, like some LSD researchers, believed that LSD and other hallucinogens could help people better understand and accept death as well as deal with its pain. When Huxley was dying of cancer in 1963, he asked his wife, Laura, to give him 100 micrograms of LSD. She later described Huxley's final dying moments while under the influence of LSD in her book This Timeless Moment:

The twitching [of Huxley's lower lip] stopped, the breathing became slower and slower, and there was absolutely not the slightest indication of contraction, of struggle. It was just that the breathing became slower—and slower—and slower; the ceasing of life was not a drama at all, but like a piece of music just finishing so gently . . . and at five twenty the breathing stopped.

In the book, Laura Huxley also noted, "Aldous died as he lived, doing his best to develop fully in himself one of the essentials he recommended to others: Awareness."

Serotonin plays a role in human emotions and mental health, as well as the functioning of various body systems, such as the cardiovascular system. By studying how LSD affects serotonin, scientists believe that they can gain a better understanding of serotonin function, which could lead to new therapies for mental problems such as depression, anxiety, panic disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. It could also lead to treatments and better care for other problems like heart disease and even migraine headaches. According to Dr. David E. Nichols, founder of the Heffter Research Institute, "While no one would suggest that LSD will be useful as a tool to study every aspect of serotonin function, the fact remains that it has been an important fundamental tool and catalyst in helping to understand the roles that serotonin plays in the brain."70

Another area of LSD research focuses on the brain's genetic response to the drug. Genes are the fundamental building blocks of life, and they control the many different chemical functions of the body. By studying LSD's effects on genes in the brain, scientists hope to learn more about human behavior and certain brain functions. Such studies may possibly lead to better diagnosis of behavioral or mental problems, including addictions, eating disorders, and depression. They could also lead to the discovery of new drugs to treat behavioral problems or help improve brain functions such as memory and learning.

Dr. Charles D. Nichols is conducting genetic studies of the brain using LSD. He has found that LSD affects genes in the prefrontal cortex of rats. Located in the front of the brain, the prefrontal cortex is involved in planning, thinking, learning, memory, judging, personality, and social behavior.

Specifically, Nichols has found that LSD affects genes that regulate synapses. Synapses are gaps between brain cells (neurons) that allow information to pass between them in the form of chemical neurotransmitters, such as serotonin. The brain responds to stimuli by adjusting how much information is communicated between neurons. The brain also changes the physical pattern of these connections between neurons, including forming new synapses and eliminating or altering old synapses. LSD studies of synapses may help scientists better understand how the brain modifies itself, adapts to experience, learns, and remembers.

Human Study

Although animal experiments with LSD are being conducted, the debate continues as to whether researchers should be allowed to administer LSD to humans. LSD cannot be used in therapy, and research on people requires a special license from the federal government. The government remains reluctant to grant permission for human study. For example, Richard Yensen initially received approval to conduct his studies with LSD, but the government decided to put the project on hold. Yensen and others are calling for the FDA and others to allow tightly controlled and regulated human studies using LSD.

Scientists and the medical community agree that the potential for abuse of the drug remains and that there are dangers to consider. Dr. George Greer, a psychiatrist and medical director of the Heffter Research Institute, has noted, "If hallucinogens ever find their way into mainstream medicine—and I am convinced they will—they will never be handed out like Prozac. People will need guidance. These are not drugs you administer every day."71

Whether or not research into LSD will progress further and prove or disprove the drug's effectiveness in some areas of psychiatric treatment is still undetermined. As long as LSD is manufactured and used illegally, the drug will remain a major concern for the government and the general public.

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