SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN MIND
D e c e m b e r 2 0 07 /J a nu a r y 2 0 0 8
P H I L I P W H E E L E R w w w. a g o o d s o n . c o m
Hallucinogenic drugs, which blew minds in the 1960s, soon may be used to treat mental ailments By David Jay Brown
Mind-altering psychedelics are back— but this time they are being explored in labs for their therapeutic applications rather than beingused illegally. Studies are looking at these hallucinogens to treat a number of otherwise intractable psychiatric disorders, including chronic depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and drug or alcohol dependency.
ponents of the Mexican “magic mushroom,” Psilocybe mexicana. Before 1972, close to 700 studies with psychedelic drugs took place. The research suggestedthat psychedelics offered signiﬁcant beneﬁts: they helped recovering alcoholics abstain, soothed the anxieties of terminal cancer patients, and eased the symptoms of many difﬁcult-to-treat psychiatric illnesses, such as obsessivecompulsive disorder. For example, between 1967 and 1972 studies in terminal cancer patients by psychiatrist Stanislav Grof and his colleagues at Spring Grove State Hospitalin Baltimore showed that LSD combined with psychotherapy could alleviate symptoms of depression, tension, anxiety, sleep disturbances, psychological withdrawal and even severe physical pain. Other investigators during this era found that LSD may have some interesting potential as a means to facilitate creative problem solving [see box on page 70]. Between 1972 and 1990 there were no human studieswith psychedelic drugs. Their disappearance was the result of a political backlash that followed the promotion of these drugs by the 1960s counterculture. This reaction not only made these substances illegal for personal use but also made it extremely difﬁcult for researchers to get government approval to study them. Things began to change in 1990, when “open-minded regulators at the FDA decidedto put science before politics when it came to psychedelic and medical marijuana research,” says Rick Doblin, a public policy ex-
The past 15 years have seen a quiet resurgence of psychedelic drug research as scientists have come to recognize the long-underappreciated potential of these drugs. In the past few years, a growing number of studies using human volunteers have begun to explore thepossible therapeutic beneﬁts of drugs such as LSD, psilocybin, DMT, MDMA, ibogaine and ketamine. Much remains unclear about the precise neural mechanisms governing how these drugs produce their mind-bending results, but they often produce somewhat similar psychoactive effects that make them potential therapeutic tools. Though still in their preliminary stages, studies in humans suggest that theday when people can schedule a psychedelic session with their therapist to overcome a serious psychiatric problem may not be that far off.
The Trip Begins
Psychedelic drug research began in 1897, when German chemist Arthur Heffter ﬁrst isolated mescaline, the primary psychoactive compound in the peyote cactus. In 1943 Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann discovered the hallucinogenic effects of LSD(lysergic acid diethylamide) at Sandoz Pharmaceuticals in Basel while studying ergot, a fungus that grows on rye. Fifteen years later, in 1958, he was the ﬁrst to isolate psilocybin and psilocin— the psychoactive com-
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SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN MIND
Psychedelic drugs affect all mental functions: perception, emotion, cognition, body awarenessand one’s sense of self.
pert and head of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). “FDA openness to research is really the key factor. Also, senior researchers who were inﬂuenced by psychedelics in the sixties now are speaking up before they retire and have earned credibility.” Chemist and neuropharmacologist David E. Nichols of Purdue University adds, “Baby boomers who...