A version of this article was originally published on High Existence, and The Third Wave.
Depression, despite affecting millions worldwide, is still a condition that we don’t fully understand.
In fact, we understand it so poorly that typical pharmaceutical treatments indiscriminately target whole neurochemical systems, resulting in unstable effectiveness and a host of side-effects.
Up to 44% of people suffering from depression have not found relief from typical antidepressant therapies. Even patients who find some form of relief from the usual prescribed antidepressants need frequent doses, sometimes causing unpleasant side-effects, and these drugs often lose their effectiveness after several years of treatment.
But where pharmaceuticals are failing, psychedelics could be a new hope.
I wrote this article for The Third Wave, where it originally appeared, as a response to an opinion piece in the New York Times from skeptical clinical psychiatrist Richard Friedman. I think it can help address the typical arguments that come from people of anti-psychedelic bias. Enjoy!
A recent article in the New York Times, penned by clinical psychiatrist Richard Friedman, attempts to scare his audience into thinking that LSD might not be a good treatment for depression, despite a barrage of recent studies suggesting otherwise. Friedman appears to be of the opinion that it would be wrong to offer these drugs to sufferers of disease; even though there is no evidence of harm from LSD or psilocybin when given in a clinical setting, and despite the growing body of evidence of the efficacy of these drugs in treating mental health conditions.
Friedman himself mentions the debilitating nature of depression; between a third and one-half of all patients will never find relief from conventional treatments. Hundreds of millions suffer worldwide, and hundreds of thousands commit suicide every year. Most of those sufferers don’t have access to the expensive treatments most commonly handed out by psychiatrists in the developed world.
This month has been another great one for the psychedelic community; with a highlight being the release of two fascinating papers which take us a step closer to understanding exactly how LSD works in the brain.
I summarise these two articles in more depth here, but for now I wanted to focus on an overlooked part of one of the studies: and it’s to do with music.
Most of us are aware that LSD is supposed to enhance your appreciation for music – it’s probably the main thing that attracted me to the substance, and I’m sure at least some people out there are the same. I wanted to be able to appreciate music in a new way, I wanted to experience my favourite sounds in new dimensions and with expanded sensations.
Although I would soon learn that there is a lot more to LSD than letting you see pretty patterns or hear new sounds, there was still a lot of truth in the saying that LSD changes the way you hear music. Songs I’d listened to hundreds of times before had a new depth, a new character… imagine all your favourite songs being re-invented, or refreshed back to their original, first-listen glory.
Call LSD ‘neurotoxic’ in a psychedelic community and see how far that gets you. You’ll probably evoke some laughter, maybe some scorn, but not much else.
For the millions of people who take LSD and similar psychedelics every year, and the tens of millions who have taken LSD since its explosion into mainstream culture in the 1960s, LSD is not a toxic drug. There have been absolutely no documented deaths from LSD overdose; the closest we’ve come was a group of partiers who snorted pure LSD crystal by accident, ingesting thousands of times a normal dose. They suffered some nasty physical effects including diarrhea and seizures, but they all survived. They didn’t even suffer any major psychological difficulties in the years following the event.
The psychological dangers of LSD are another story. Although we’ve moved past the proved-to-be-false scare stories of kids being blinded by the sun or jumping out of windows, psychedelics really do dramatically alter your perception of reality, and can certainly do some harm to your mind if used irresponsibly.
It’s these psychological harms that have been investigated in a recent study looking back at the hundreds of people who were given LSD in hospitals in the 60s and 70s in Denmark.
In our last blog post “Are we living in a conscious universe?” we looked at a new theory of consciousness called “integrated information theory”. IIT was developed in an attempt to understand the link between the physical world and our experience of consciousness.
In trying to understand what physical systems give rise to our experience of consciousness, IIT makes a basic assumption; that consciousness is part of the basic fabric of the universe. At first this may sound unscientific… but in fact we assume many fundamental laws in science. In physics we assume a fundamental link between matter and gravity without being able to see examine the link directly. James Maxwell had to assume some fundamental electromagnetic laws to develop a theory of electromagnetic fields. And in a similar way, IIT assumes that consciousness arises from physical systems due to some fundamental laws of the universe.
The details of IIT are complex, and involve quite a bit of computational neuroscience. Overall, the basic idea is that any physical system that contains feedback systems has at least some level of consciousness. IIT predicts that our brains, with their highly connected and complex feedback systems, are highly conscious – which we can confirm from our own experience.
So what does IIT predict about the psychedelic state? What changes in the way that information is organised in our brains during the psychedelic experience, and how does that fit in with IIT’s model of consciousness?
Earlier this year, researchers at Imperial showed us the first ever detailed images of the brain on LSD. The images showed that LSD massively increased connectivity in the brain, freeing it from its usual boundaries. Now researchers are starting to piece together how LSD breaks down these boundaries of normal consciousness, leading us to an understanding of the workings of the mind.
In a recent study from the same UCL group, funded by the psychedelic research charity the Beckley Foundation, researchers looked into how LSD affects our ability to recognise simple objects. The researchers recruited ten participants for their study, almost all of whom were experienced with psychedelic drugs. The subjects attended two experimental sessions: one where they were injected with LSD (40-80μg), and one where they were injected with a placebo. During both placebo and LSD sessions, participants took an object recognition test. They were shown images of simple objects like pieces of clothing or vehicles. As soon as an image appeared, the participants had to name the object as quickly and accurately as they could.
We’ve all suffered from the occasional spontaneous headache. If you’ve experienced migraines before, you’ll know they’re a step up from normal headaches – they cause nauseating pain, blind spots in your vision and pain that can last for hours.
Cluster headaches go beyond even the debilitating pain of migraines. Clinically a different type of headache altogether, they are characterised by severe, excruciating pain focused on one side of the head. An episode can last several hours and can reoccur within a short time period, even several times within the same day. Around one in 500 people suffer from cluster headaches, and some report that their headaches are more painful than childbirth.
Because clinicians don’t understand what causes cluster headaches, treating them is difficult. Current treatments are expensive, unpleasant or impractical – such as inhaling from an oxygen tank or frequent injections. Many medicines, especially preventative ones, cause unpleasant side effects including heart problems and gum disease. An estimated 10-20% of sufferers can’t find relief from any typical treatments. But psychedelic drugs may be able to finally provide relief for those unfortunate few.
Swirling colours, delirious patterns, groovy rhythms and otherworldly vistas. These are some of the first things that come to mind when we think about psychedelics. The unique fashion and culture of the 1960s was influenced by the popularity of psychedelic drugs like no other time in our history; the colours, patterns and hair-dos of that time stand out like a carnival in our recent timeline.
Pink Floyd, Jefferson Airplane, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles… the list of bands influenced by psychedelics could go on and on. Aldous Huxley’s works, still hugely influential to this day, are clearly inspired by his experiences with mescaline and LSD. Steve Jobs took LSD in college, and called it “one of the two or three most important things I have done in my life”. The inventor of PCR, a breakthrough biomolecular technique that has revolutionised medical research, said that LSD gave him the intuition that allowed him to make the ground-breaking discovery. Artists and architects, authors and entrepreneurs have been finding inspiration in LSD, mescaline, psilocybin and DMT for decades.
Death is something we all have in common. Although we all think about death to different degrees and for different reasons, it’s something that ties us together. We can all empathise with a fear of death, even if most of us have not had to face it as starkly as others.
People suffering from life-threatening diseases have perhaps the most traumatic relationship with death. Knowing you have only months or weeks to live must produce an existential crisis of enormous intensity. In many patients, this can mean anxiety and depression 1, and can make the last part of their lives also one of the most distressing.
Unsurprisingly, psychiatrists and therapists have turned to the classic psychedelics, including LSD and psilocybin, as a potential salve for end-of-life anxiety. Psychiatrists have known for half a century that these psychedelics can provide a new perspective on life, and result in meaningful and spiritual experiences. Early studies from the 60s and 70s suggested that psychedelics could reduce end-of-life anxiety, and help terminal cancer patients come to terms with their death.
Alcohol abuse is one of the biggest health problems in the EU. Alcohol is highly addictive, highly toxic, and does unrivalled damage to society. In men aged 16-54, alcohol is the number one killer in the UK 1. In 2012, the UK saw over a million hospital admissions due to alcohol. Alcohol abuse currently costs EU countries around €125 billion a year – over 1% of these countries’ GDPs. In 2010, Professor David Nutt and a panel of experts ranked alcohol as the most harmful drug in the country, in terms of both its harm to users and others 2. Alcohol addiction is powerful, dangerous and deadly.
Ironically, hope for treating alcoholism could lie in a drug that the UK Home Office regards as one of the most dangerous in existence; LSD. After its discovery as a psychedelic drug in the 1960s, LSD was used by therapists who thought its effects could help treat problems like depression and addiction 3. When LSD was classed as an illegal drug, its use in therapy dwindled, and research into its potentially healing properties was stifled.
Although LSD research is still possible today, it’s extremely expensive and highly restricted; costs increase tenfold compared to trials on unrestricted compounds, and jumping the necessary hurdles can take many years. Before LSD was made illegal, a considerable amount of research was published in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, when it was still easy to obtain and therapists were convinced of its medical value. Recently, two scientists decided to look back on six of these studies to see if there is really any merit in using LSD as a treatment for alcoholism 4.