Scientific study often opens new doors of discovery---but sometimes it reopens doors closed long ago. On Tuesday, experimental psychiatrists in Santa Cruz, California published results from the first controlled medical trial of LSD in over 40 years. The study, published in Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease
[pdf], found evidence that LSD, when administered in a medically-based therapeutic environment, lowers the anxiety experienced by individuals facing life-threatening illnesses. Although the sample size—just 12 people—was small, the findings offer compelling rationale for further study of the illegal, often stigmatized drug. “This study is historic and marks a rebirth of investigation into LSD-assisted psychotherapy,” said Rick Doblin in a news release, executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, which sponsored the study. “The positive results and evidence of safety clearly show why additional, larger studies are needed.”
When Research Came to a Halt
That LSD—lysergic acid diethylamide—can be therapeutically beneficial has been known for decades. Studies of the chemical substance began back in 1949 as a way to simulate mental illness. But researchers soon discovered beneficial effects of the drug. By 1965, over 1,000 studies were published that heralded the therapeutic efficacy of LSD. The substance was used to treat alcoholism, and in several studies from the 60s, the drug was found to reduce anxiety, depression and pain—when used in conjunction with counseling—in cancer patients. Similar benefits were also discovered from other psychedelics such as hallucinogenic mushrooms. However, despite its promise, LSD research ground to a standstill after the substance was outlawed in the United States in 1966 in response to soaring recreational use.
Revisiting the Past
The new study reaffirms many of the findings from 40 years ago. Researchers recruited 12 patients who were coping with anxiety associated with life-threatening illnesses. Eight patients were then randomly selected to receive drug-free psychotherapy sessions as well as two LSD-assisted sessions 2 to 3 weeks apart. Four participants were given a placebo during therapy and they served as the control. LSD helped stimulate a deep psychedelic state, allowing the participants to reach what they described as an emotionally intensified dream-like state. “My LSD experience brought back some lost emotions and ability to trust, lots of psychological insights, and a timeless moment when the universe didn’t seem like a trap, but like a revelation of utter beauty,” said Peter, an Austrian subject who participated in the study. In a follow-up two months later, researchers noted a statistically significant reduction in state anxiety—heightened emotions that develop in response to a fear or danger—faced by patients who were given LSD therapy. In contrast, state anxiety actually increased for patients in the placebo group. Further, the reductions in anxiety were sustained for a full year in the group given LSD.
A Future for LSD
The study’s authors are clear that this is just a preliminary investigation with a very small sample size. The results are far from conclusive. Rather, when combined with the findings from other decades-old studies, the study's authors hope to encourage other researchers to look beyond the stigma associated with LSD and explore other possible medical applications of the drug.
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