LSD Staging Comeback – to Treat PTSD

Decades after its colorful rise and relapse into oblivion, scientists are revisiting mind-bending drugs in treatment of depressive and anxietal conditions.

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Image from the 2007 Beatle's musical 'Across the Universe.'
Image from the 2007 Beatle's musical 'Across the Universe.' Credit: Screen grab
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

It's been half a century since LSD was A Thing, first extolled by some for "opening" the mind, then excoriated by some for making some people jump out of windows to escape the giant pink cockroaches. Yet according to an analysis published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, there are studies being done on use of lysergic acid diethylamide as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, of all things. And anxiety.

And addiction, let us not forget that. The scientists qualify that use of psychedelic drugs in such contexts is an adjunct to therapy, not the main course, and it is administered under controlled conditions, not in the basement.

LSD and other psychedelic drugs – mushrooms come to mind - affect one's "conscious experience," meaning they can severely twist our perception of reality. Sober, you know the giant pink cockroach doesn't exist. Under the influence, whatever you know or don't know, you think you see one and may react accordingly.

Now, decades later, the sensationalism has waned, research done in the 1950s and 1960s that had been quietly shelved is coming back to light, and it's in again to evaluate other effects the drugs have.

"Keep in mind that it's different in many ways than what we may see in an abuse setting – when people came to the ER experiencing negative effects of these compounds," says Dr. Matthew Johnson, associate professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, in a video interview.

These drugs had a history, points out Johnson. Because of the bad name LSD and its ilk developed due to abuse, intriguing medical work with them got shelved, Johnson says – such as studies that had indicated magic mushrooms were highly effective in treating alcoholism.

Smokers also benefited heavily from therapy assisted by LSD, albeit according to small studies: "Twelve out of 15 folks were biologically verified as tobacco abstinent after six months," says Johnson, adding that is a really high success rate - though he stresses out that the smoking study was open-label, so consequentiality is iffy.

Trip away from end-of-life thoughts?

Why might perception-altering drugs be useful in treating depression, let alone the horrors of PTSD? We don't know for sure, but the results of – we repeat, very small – studies indicate that it can be.

A small pilot study done at UCLA in the past found a reduction in both anxiety and depressive symptoms. "The really important thing about this is that these reductions are seen not just acutely but long-term. We're not talking about acute change in mood while the drug is in effect," says Johnson. "People seem to have major shifts in their perspective, that is evidence going forward long-term."

As for PTSD, a small American study using MDMA shows a reduction in symptoms in people with chronic, treatment-resistant PTSD – and again, the results were spectacular compared with regular treatments for PTSD, which don't actually work that well, says Johnson.

A study under way at John Hopkins, which they have yet to publish, has been finding very strong effects using the drug on people with end-of-life- anxiety and depression, much greater than the effects typically achieved with approved medications, Johnson says. Initial work with PTSD has also supplied positive signals, he adds. "Across the board we're seeing some impressive results, certainly worthy of careful followup."

"Continued medical research and scientific inquiry into psychedelic drugs may offer new ways to treat mental illness and addiction in patients who do not benefit from currently available treatments," write the authors. "Although methodological and political challenges remain to some degree, recent clinical studies have shown that studies on psychedelics as therapeutic agents can conform to the rigorous scientific, ethical and safety standards expected of contemporary medical research," they add.

Again, the studies included in the analysis were tiny, and the results are preliminary. Much work remains to be done before there can be widespread clinical application, if that day comes. Also: You are not imagining that you read this article.

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