In the 1960s, the phrase “Turn on, tune in, and drop out” became associated with the drug culture. The class of drugs known as hallucinogens (named because they cause extreme distortions in a person’s perception of reality) received special attention because they were considered to open the door to an “expanded” mind and allow people to receive insights that were not possible without the drug. By the mid-60s, because of a number of disastrous results, LSD and related drugs were banned.
But interest in psychiatric use of hallucinogens appears to be on the rise again. A recent article in the New York Times (April 11, 2010) indicates that some hallucinogens can be helpful in treating some psychiatric disorders. Psilocybin has been shown to be effective in treating patients with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and end-of-life anxiety.
LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) had is birth as a by-product of research in 1938 into compounds that stimulated the circulation and respiration. Some five years later, Albert Hofman (who originally synthesized the material) accidentally discovered its hallucinogenic properties. Research on the psychological effects of LSD and its use in treatment of mental disorders began in the late 1940s. A number of studies were carried out (both legitimate and covert) in the 1950s. The drug began to appear on the street in the early 1960s and was banned in 1966 after a number of reports began to appear that described the extremely dangerous properties of the drug.
Even though LSD and related hallucinogens (such as psilocybin) received a great deal of negative publicity, there was on-going interest in the psychiatric community. The hallucinogen aspects of the LSD experience strongly mimicked the hallucinations seen in many schizophrenics. There were studies that suggested some benefits of LSD use in treating depression. By 1965, over 2000 papers on the use of psychedelics in the treatment of mental illness had been published. Unfortunately, many of these studies were anecdotal and seriously flawed in their methodology. When the drug was banned in 1966, research interest dwindled away.
Present theories revolve around the similarity in structure between the hallucinogens and serotonin, a neurotransmitter. It is widely believed that depression is accompanied by low serotonin levels in the brain. Antidepressants are thought to stimulate an increase in brain serotonin, and thus alleviate the symptoms of the disorder. The hallucinogens have chemical structures similar to that of serotonin and are believed to supplement existing serotonin in the brain, causing levels to rise to normal and alleviating the psychological symptoms.
Currently, research on the use of hallucinogens in treatment of mental disorders is being carried out in a number of facilities. A world conference on the use of these drugs was recently held in San Jose, California. Could it be that, some day, the drug that caused many to “drop out” will allow many more to “drop back in” to a more normal way of life?