Are hallucinogenics the future of anti-depressants?

Written by Science, Science & Tech

The use of psychedelics, drugs that induce altered states of consciousness, for medical purposes has been a long-debated issue. Specifically, the use of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (more commonly known as LSD or Acid), and research on its use in both medical settings and for medical conditions has been a contentious flashpoint for a lot of scientists.

LSD was discovered in 1943, while war raged all over Europe, in a lab in Basel, Switzerland. Albert Hofmann accidentally touched his hand with his mouth while synthesising a chemical intended to stimulate the respiratory system and the nervous system. Instead, he realised that he had landed upon something far more potent – what would then come to be known as LSD.

In the 1950s and 1960s many studies were carried out investigating the use of LSD in psychiatric conditions, following the findings by a group of pioneering psychiatrists that hallucinogenic drugs could have therapeutic effects. It then became the golden age of psychedelics until it got caught up on the wrong side of the law. A backlash in the form of “the war on drugs” halted any scientific progress. In 1971, the UK parliament introduced the Misuse of Drugs Act, classifying LSD along with other drugs as illegal Class A Drugs.

However, with the medicinal effects of cannabis (another drug that got caught in the middle of the drug war) coming to the forefront where it has even been legalised in a lot of places around the world, there are questions as to whether LSD (and by extension, other hallucinogens) should still be subjected to a stringent ban.

Personally, I think that the ban ought to be lifted but the process of research itself be highly regulated. Research could be subject to more ethical control and regular scrutiny than any other normal project, simply because the potential for misuse is a lot more. As such, the legalisation of the use of LSD for medicinal purposes should not occur without proof of medicinal benefits. “It feels like the narrative around these substances is changing very quickly,” says Stephen Reid, the founder of The Psychedelic Society, UK. “We anticipated that now would be a good time to make a serious push for rescheduling,” he continued, “What we didn’t know when we started planning the campaign was that there would be this news around cannabis. It is a further sign of how fast things are changing.”

There is also concrete proof from recent times that psychedelics may be of use in treating psychiatric disorders. In a study conducted on 20 patients by Dr Robin Carhart-Harris (head of psychedelic research at Imperial College London), participants went through psilocybin (a psychedelic similar to LSD) and therapy sessions with a “guide”, a therapist who would interact with them when they were taking the drug. After three months, the effects of psilocybin on treating depression were much more profound than when treated with standard anti-depressive medication. Participants also said they felt “connected” to the world from a previous state of disconnect and were now accepting emotions instead of avoiding it.

However, there are some pitfalls – the threat of addiction, those administering the therapy need to be trained and they need to be willing to adapt to the new methods. There is also some way to go before LSD as a drug may be culturally acceptable in some parts of the world. Although, with studies such as the one done at Imperial College London strengthening the case for the use of psychedelics in psychiatric disorders, it is imperative that with changing times there is a change in the stigmas that concern psychedelic drugs, and the exploration them being used therapeutically.

Last modified: 24th February 2019

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