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Scientists test hallucinogens for use in treating mental illness:
March 14, 2001 6:37 AM   Subscribe

Scientists test hallucinogens for use in treating mental illness: Hallucinogenic drugs like LSD and peyote — derided as toys of the hippie generation — are increasingly drawing the interest of neurologists and psychiatrists who want to test the idea that they may be valuable tools in treating a range of mental disorders. The researchers involved in the new work are not suggesting that people start medicating themselves with hallucinogens. Still, Dr. David E. Nichols, a professor of pharmacology and medicinal chemistry at Purdue, believes the drugs' potential should be investigated. Nichols, an expert on hallucinogenic drugs, said there were reports that symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder, like washing one's hands dozens of times a day, subside under the influence of psilocybin, a hallucinogen derived from mushrooms. (Note: it's a New York Times link, free registration required.)
posted by jhiggy (31 comments total)

 
Eliot at Follow Me Here blinked this, but alas did not comment. This kind of subject is right up his professional alley, would love to hear what he and other psychiatrists think.
posted by jhiggy at 6:39 AM on March 14, 2001


I can't fathom that the use of psychotropic drugs to treat mental illness is anything doctors would seriously consider, even in small "doses." If the purpose of treatment is rehabilitation, or at the very least closing the gap between deficiency and normalcy -- a term whose definition will be debated for eternity, anyway -- why choose a medication which will effectively distance the patient from others?

Society in the last century has made great strides at inclusion, rather than exclusion, of those with mental illness. Granted, there's still a long way to go. But, given that mainstream society has already deemed hallucinogenic drugs a dangerous ill, mainstream medicine embracing them would seem to be a fundamental step backwards.
posted by legibility at 7:16 AM on March 14, 2001


"We can tease out specific brain regions responsible for hallucinations and ego boundaries," Dr. Vollenweider said over the telephone, he added "after this one last bum.. I swear!"

Sounds a bit strange, I thought drugs impaired your ability to think... well, at least clearer or more sanely.
posted by tiaka at 7:19 AM on March 14, 2001


I could understand using marijuana to help cancer patients want to eat. But using LSD to combat fear? Have these scientists ever had a bad trip? Maybe they need to taste their own medicine.

(disclaimer::former bad girl, all cleaned up and adultified now)

posted by u.n. owen at 7:44 AM on March 14, 2001


the heffter research institute mentioned in the article put out a review of psychedelic research a few years back. i thought this article presented a very reasoned approach to why such studies should be conducted.
posted by kliuless at 7:55 AM on March 14, 2001


But Legibility, your argument is strange...society has deemed hallucinogenic "something you shouldn't do." "A dangerous ill" is going a bit far. I don't know about you, but I don't look down on people who've taken hallucinogens. People should smoke crack if it would make them feel better.
It seems to me like this is a situation that could make society become more accepting of hallucinogenic drugs. Which would be a good thing.
posted by Doug at 8:15 AM on March 14, 2001


The hallucinogen ibogaine has been used for the treatment of narcotic and cocaine addiction. The treatment is illegal in the U.S., but many addicts travel overseas for it. Since most hallucinogens act by mimicking neurotransmitters in the brain, it seems plausible that some benefit might be gained by their use in the treatment of mental illnesses known to be caused by some neurochemical "glitch." The key, as with any medical treatment, will be to gain maximum benefit with minimal side effects. In the case of ibogaine, scientists are working to isolate the specific alkaloid that has antiaddictive properties to eliminate the hallucinogenic effects of the treatment.
posted by gimli at 8:23 AM on March 14, 2001


I can't fathom that the use of psychotropic drugs to treat mental illness is anything doctors would seriously consider, even in small "doses." If the purpose of treatment is rehabilitation, or at the very least closing the gap between deficiency and normalcy -- a term whose definition will be debated for eternity, anyway -- why choose a medication which will effectively distance the patient from others?

If you're referring to the patient's ability to communicate and relate with others during the "trip," sure, you're right. If you're referring to insights gained during that time, you're wrong. Many friends of mine who have done various hallucinogens (I make no admissions nor denials) state that they've learned tendencies about themselves and understood how they relate to others while under the influence.

But, given that mainstream society has already deemed hallucinogenic drugs a dangerous ill, mainstream medicine embracing them would seem to be a fundamental step backwards.

Knee jerk. Tyranny of the majority. Specious logic. I don't recall any referendum asking whether it was a dangerous ill, nor does prohibition mean beneficial effects should be ignored, nor does majority rules mean that facts can be denied. By your logic, if the majority of society decided that chocolate wasn't delicious, then it must taste bad.

Just another weak excuse to restrict scientific and personal freedom.
posted by norm at 8:25 AM on March 14, 2001


Indeed, we should recall that many psychotropic drugs started out in the therapeutic arena, and were only banned after they became ... er ... popular. Also, many of the "ills" of these drugs -- bad trips, bad reactions -- may be directly related to their underground manufacture, and accidental or deliberate impurities. (For example, the widely-cited "Ecstasy deaths" are not due to MDMA, but due to PMA which is billed as Ecstasy to unsuspecting teens.)

Meanwhile, thousands of people die from alcohol and tobacco abuse every year and society barely bats an eye.
posted by dhartung at 8:32 AM on March 14, 2001


Second that. Many psychotropic drugs are still in use for many medical purposes, including analgesia, anesthesia, antipsychosis, etc. And to add to dhartung's point, "bad trips, bad reactions," while often attributable to the causes he cites, are even more frequently attributable to people who are taking drugs not for any therapeutic purposes, but simply to get high. To conflate recreational drug use and genuine pharmacological treatment is to completely miss the point.
posted by Skot at 8:59 AM on March 14, 2001


I thought drugs impaired your ability to think... well, at least clearer or more sanely.

Sanity is always a matter of social consensus.

Spiders on LSD spin symmetrical webs, which led the scientist who conducted the experiment to regard LSD as a "de-hallucinogen". My personal experience of salvia divinorum was similarly interesting: you get the experience of the world without the filter of abstraction.

I'm wary of the kind of absolutism surrounding theories of localised brain function, but there's definitely a well-formed belief that psychotropic drugs can bypass conceptual centres that influence mental illness or degenerative disorders. And as others have mentioned, "bad" drugs not only have long clinical histories, but are also better documented than modern treatments. Many psychiatrics admit that they're uncertain of how most "advanced" treatments work, or their side-effects.
posted by holgate at 9:49 AM on March 14, 2001


Dextromethorphan (as in Robitussin DM) provides a good example to illustrate how blurry the line is between therapeutically valuable and recreational drugs. It was known for many years that morphine derivatives such as codeine were extremely effective in suppressing coughs. The problem was to get the benefit without the narcotic effects. Research yielded DM, which specifically targets opiate receptors in the brain (omega, I think) which do not produce narcotic side effects, but do suppress cough. Great, right? Not so fast. Another type of research (namely kids who will drink, sniff, or smoke just about anything) yielded the recreational use of DM. Back in college in the late '80s, I knew people who would "Robo" by drinking a 4oz bottle of cough suppressant. The usual effect was projectile vomiting followed by about 6 hours of a "mushroom-like" experience. I never tried it, since for a few bucks more you could skip the nausea. Apparently, the word has spread rapidly about the abuse potential of DM, and it has become quite popular.

When looking for the DM link I came across a site which claimed to have been "blacked out" in protest of the proposed Feinstein-Hatch Bill, which would prohibit the publication of "unapproved" drug information. Hmm...
posted by gimli at 10:24 AM on March 14, 2001


This is unsubstantiated, since I'm at work and can't remember where I read this, but there is a statistic that LSD was used to treat alchoholism in the fifties with a 98% success rate.


posted by annathea at 11:26 AM on March 14, 2001


Weren't there large experments using LSD before. I'm too lazy to dig up the link right now, but I'll try and post it later. I'm pretty sure there have been experments using LSD to help people get off cetain drugs, and to treat mental illness. Does anoything know anything about this?
posted by bytecode at 11:54 AM on March 14, 2001


And to further back up what gimli is talking about, Harper's ran a great article a while ago (they don't post their damn articles online, of course) detailing society's near-arbitrary drug mores. Prozac and countless other antidepressants are known as SSRIs--Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors. That is, these drugs inhibit the brain's ability to "reuptake" the neurotransmitter serotonin, thus increasing the amount present in the brain, which stimulates feelings of euphoria (or at least minimizes dysphoria, I suppose). Nobody really knows why serotonin works this way, either. (Someone is sure to call me out on my botchy medical stuff here--I'm doing this all from memory.)

No problem, right? Well, MDMA and a lot of other stimulants that we currently regard as illegal narcotics simply eliminate the middleman of suppressing serotonin reuptake: they simply work by prompting the brain to emit massive amounts of serotonin directly (they do other things like vasodilate too). This seems to me a distinction without too much of a difference, at least in terms of effect.

I recall the author making the point that while we have no problem with Viagra, a drug that stimulated immediate orgasm directly would be legislated out of bounds with some immediacy.

A quick and dirty Google search turned up this bibliography of articles written about studies using LSD in drug treatment.
posted by Skot at 12:05 PM on March 14, 2001


I tried hard to find a link to a valid scientific study of LSD in the treatment of alcoholism. I found tons of anecdotal stuff and advocacy of various positions, but nothing that I could post here with good conscience. I found a few things that concurred with annathea's post, and a few that didn't. What they all had in common was a subtext of advocacy. This is understandable given the emotionally charged nature of the drug issue, but it is also sad since it hinders our search for the truth.
posted by gimli at 12:06 PM on March 14, 2001


Before the filthy hippies got a hold of it, LSD was already being used in such a manner.
posted by Nathan at 12:25 PM on March 14, 2001


Indeed. The dearly departed Dr. Leary used LSD as therapy for his patients, and apparently had great success with it.

Okay, quick show of hands: of the people who are bewildered that Serious Doctors would prescribe LSD, how many of you have actually taken it?
posted by solistrato at 12:38 PM on March 14, 2001


*raises hand*

In my opinion, the danger lies in abuse, not use.
posted by Hackworth at 12:46 PM on March 14, 2001


Oh wait, not to mean that I am bewildered that doctors would experiment with LSD, that part makes sense to me. I gotta take it easy on that itchy trigger-finger.
posted by Hackworth at 12:48 PM on March 14, 2001


Many friends of mine who have done various hallucinogens (I make no admissions nor denials) state that they've learned tendencies about themselves and understood how they relate to others while under the influence.

I make admissions. I've used pot (regularily), mushrooms (occasionally), hash (not often enough), LSD (once) and Ecstacy (twice). I'm pretty sure at least one of my Ecstacy tabs wasn't real MDMA - 6 of us ended up being sick. It was an awfully fun and brief sick (which, when sober is kind of scary), but sick nonetheless.

The LSD was pretty fun, and "the observer" is a pretty neat effect to feel, essentially a piece of yourself sits back and watches, while the rest of you enjoys the trip. It's pretty hard to describe, and I'm sure there's many good explanations at The Lycaeum.

Apparently dissociatives (such as DM) have a much more striking observer effect, and in that regards I'm curious about their effects, but I'm really pretty wary about tossing chemicals into my body that I picked up from some guy on the street. (I get my pot from a friend who grows a few pounds every year, to stave off the "but pot can be spiked too" points)

Anyway, the point of that ramble is that some of the research with LSD suggests that "the observer" can lead to some insights into yourself, for example why you're afraid of spiders. Between that and interpreting the various hallucinations seen, there are many Serious Doctors that think psychological problems could be resolved through monitored (and that's a key word in this discussion I think) LSD therapy.
posted by cCranium at 2:20 PM on March 14, 2001


One thing about me, when I reference "mainstream" anything, it's usually tongue-firmly-planted-in-cheek. Sorry not to be clearer this morning, Doug and Norm. Here's an updated argument:

I personally believe that a majority of society views hallucinogenic drugs as dangerous, whether through ignorant sheep-herd mentality, common medical consensus, or perhaps actual experimentation. My view of Prozac and other SSRIs is similar: once the drugs have crossed over from minority acceptance into "mainstream popularity" [there I go again], the floodgates are open, and very little will stop the onslaught of prescriptions. Whether psychotropics cause "ill communication" with others in your surroundings [in my experience, they do], whether they're ultimately mind-expanding as Norm argues [I believe they can be], the gist of my argument should have been that other knee-jerkers out there in the world will never accept common usage of "bad drugs" precisely because they've already passed through the sociological fire. And did they come away unscathed? No. I'd point out the media hype surrounding ecstasy, ketamine, and huffing as examples. It would take a vast realignment of common thought, over more generations than we'll stick around for, to change what have become higher societal principles.

I myself have done a number of drugs, everything mentioned on this page and more, though not in three or four years. I'm also diagnosed OCD. And I think continued usage of hallucinogenic drugs would be anathema to the progress I've made on my own [without any medication] in becoming a balanced, relatively happy person.

The real question I'm curious about: if such a realignment occurred, how quickly would the pharmaceutical industry buy in? How quickly would the drugs that are currently linchpins of underground communities be commodified further than they already are? If the government won't buy in, I think it's safe to say Pfizer will.
posted by legibility at 2:42 PM on March 14, 2001


the danger lies in abuse, not use.

Of course, and yet alcohol, tobacco, Valium, Liquid-Plumr, handguns, automobiles, knives, rocks, and dirty words remain legal. The argument is that the decisions are arbitrary.
posted by daveadams at 3:54 PM on March 14, 2001


LSD was first used to treat alcoholics, saw this on the Discovery channel only a few weeks ago, and as annathea said it did have a very high rate of success as the person being treated gained insight into himself/herself and realised what an ass they've been.

Like cCranium, i have tried a variety of things and i feel it has helped me greatly in understanding MYSELF first and foremost.

cCranium, i suffer from the same problem regarding hash.


posted by Zool at 4:07 PM on March 14, 2001


The real question I'm curious about: if such a realignment occurred, how quickly would the pharmaceutical industry buy in?

This is a very good question. While I'm in favor of decriminilization of most drugs (I haven't made up my mind about heroin), it does seem that there is a danger that the pharmaceutical industry will promote drug use like alcohol and tobacco industries do already.
posted by Loudmax at 8:54 PM on March 14, 2001


When LSD was first found (in the late 19th century, actually) it was thought at the time that they'd found a way to temporarily induce the symptoms of schizophrenia in people, and that they'd be able to study it. It didn't turn out to be true, of course.

Maybe fifteen years ago, however, another horror resulting from a designer-drug did have important clinical results. Someone screwed up a batch of something and though he made the drug he wanted he also made something else. Several of the people who took his creation ended up with Parkinson's disease. Needless to say, whatever it was isn't given to humans but I believe they're using it now as part of animal studies to create victims, er, subjects for treatment with experimental drugs.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 10:29 PM on March 14, 2001


mmmmm....halucinogens....must medicate now...
posted by chrismc at 10:39 PM on March 14, 2001


That would be MPTP, Steven. The drug he was aiming for was MPPP, aka Demerol. MPTP and Parkinson's.
posted by dhartung at 10:49 PM on March 14, 2001


Good news: The patient is no longer neurotically washing his hands 70 times a day.

Bad news: The gigantic vampire bat he thinks he sees is washing its bloody claws 70 times a day.
posted by pracowity at 4:42 AM on March 15, 2001


MPTP case studies make for extremely depressing reading. The victims are often left conscious, but completely unable to move, since the toxin virtually destroys the dopamine producing area of the substantia nigra. The only treatment available, large doses of L-dopa, causes terrible side effects which can ultimately kill the patient or cause psychosis. The "silver lining", as noted by dh is the potential for study to help Parkinson's patients. One advance that has come of the research is a drug that inhibits the reuptake of dopamine so lower doses of L-dopa can be given. Another positive is that it has helped prove the long-held theory that environmental toxins may be the culprit in Parkinson's.

MPTP cases are used on both sides of the drug legalization debate. One side says, "See what happens when you take drugs?" The other says, "Make safe drugs legally available and you'll put underground labs out of business."
posted by gimli at 7:10 AM on March 15, 2001


To quote Bill Hicks: "I don't do drugs anymore......than the average touring funk band."
posted by Optamystic at 6:02 PM on March 15, 2001


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