Hallucinogens – the best medicine?

Recently my masters course went to visit the Wellcome Collection’s new exhibit, ‘High Society’, which examines the role of drugs in society from ancient civilisations to the modern world. It was an interesting exhibit which aimed to induce conversations about the subject through a collection of fascinating objects, rather than forcing information down people’s throats. A good concept for an exhibit, but I feel that a little more information may have added more colour and created better discussion. The lack of information, and the difficulty in finding the article labels (although we were alter told this is something that will change), left the discussion quite vapid.

One particular piece at the exhibit that caught my eye was about the discovery of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) by Albert Hoffman. I think the history of LSD is absolutely fascinating and worth exploring.

LSD was actually first made 5 years before its psychedelic effects were accidently discovered. It was part of a laborious project to pharmacologically investigate synthetic amides of lysergic acid. Despite early interest in the unique properties of LSD, years passed and work on the molecule waned. Despite this Albert Hoffman had a persistent niggle that LSD needed greater attention. So, in 1943, he prepared a fresh quantity of the compound.

Here is his account of a one day in the lab following the creation of that batch.

Last Friday, April 16, 1943, I was forced to stop my work in the laboratory in the middle of the afternoon and to go home, as I was seized by a peculiar restlessness associated with a sensation of mild dizziness. On arriving home, I lay down and sank into a kind of drunkenness which was not unpleasant and which was characterized by extreme activity of imagination. As I lay in a dazed condition with my eyes closed (I experienced daylight as disagreeably bright) there surged upon me an uninterrupted stream of fantastic images of extraordinary plasticity and vividness and accompanied by an intense, kaleidoscope-like play of colors. This condition gradually passed off after about two hours.

He quickly realised that it must have been contact with LSD which resulted in this reaction, and planned a self experiment…

[Lab notes] April 19, 1943

Preparation of an 0.5% aqueous solution of d-lysergic acid diethylamide tartrate.
    4:20 P.M.: 0.5 cc (0.25 mg LSD) ingested orally. The solution is tasteless.
    4:50 P.M.: no trace of any effect.
    5:00 P.M.: slight dizziness, unrest, difficulty in concentration, visual disturbances, marked desire to laugh…

 Hoffman writes that at this point, the last few works were written with great difficulty and he had to discontinue the notes. He decided to return home by bike despite his vision being distorted and experiencing a number of other unusual symptoms. He supplementary notes for the day explicitly describe the first LSD high.

After this remarkable self experiment, research showed that LSD had real promise in psychiatric treatment. In particular it had phenomenal success in treating addiction. This amazing, vintage Horizon episode simply entitled ‘Psychedelics’ made in the 1990s interviews some of the people involved in the research.

A fantastic article in this month’s Scientific American, “Hallucinogens as Medicine” outlines how many people believe that psychedelics still have a valuable role in today’s psychiatric therapy. It seems like, in a scientific setting at least, hallucinogens really could be the best medicine!

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