March 20, 2008
Could Ecstasy, LSD and magic mushrooms one day be legitimate
prescription medicines? It sounds unlikely, but doctors and
researchers in the US and across Europe believe it is possible and
that new science will prove the case.
Second chances are rare in science. In the Fifties and Sixties,
hallucinogenic drugs, such as LSD, were hailed as the magic bullet to
everything from alcoholism to migraine. But they became caught in the
crossfire of the cultural wars of the times. Western politicians
banned the use of psychedelics in research once they started to be
used recreationally, and became associated with flower-power and the
counter culture. The drugs were dangerous; the science was flawed;
the researchers biased.
But a comeback has been under way for more than a decade. A new
generation of researchers say that psychedelic drugs can treat
conditions such as addiction, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder
and a type of headache called cluster headache.
Studies with Ecstasy and LSD are planned or are under way in the UK,
Switzerland, Germany, Spain and Israel. And so big is this scientific
movement that researchers and speakers are gathered this weekend in
Basel, Switzerland, for the inaugural World Psychedelic Forum. Here
are some of the drugs they may be discussing. ECSTASY In the mid to
late-Eighties, Ecstasy, or its chemical name MDMA, was used
therapeutically by psychotherapists on the West Coast of the US. They
were wowed by its ability to break down psychological barriers
between patient and practitioner, and instil feelings of empathy and
calm. It was found to be particularly useful in marriage counselling.
How it achieves its effect is not clear, but it is thought to affect
the action of two moodenhancing brain chemicals, serotonin and
dopamine. Proponents say that the drug allows people to open up and
express themselves in ways that they otherwise might not be able to.
They are also more relaxed and calm, which helps to stop them
becoming traumatised again when they revisit painful memories. The
drug is neurotoxic at high doses, but the debate continues as to
whether a few low to medium doses causes permanent damage.
Supporters argue that any risk is outweighed by the possible benefits
for people who have not responded to conventional treatments, and
that limited exposure to the drug in moderate doses will not result
in addiction or long-term memory problems. Michael Mithoefer, a
clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the Medical University
of South Carolina, is finishing a study into MDMA's effect on
patients with treatment-resistant post-traumatic stress disorder. He
says the preliminary results are promising and that the therapeutic
response "warrants our going on to larger studies".
The "classic" hallucinogens, such as LSD and psilocybin (the active
ingredient in "magic" mushrooms), also affect the serotonin and
dopamine systems in the brain. LSD causes hallucinations, commonly
known as a "trip". Researchers believe that it may be useful in
treating severe headaches known as cluster headaches. These usually
centre around one side of the head, and can occur several times a day
for weeks, before stopping for long stretches of up to several
months. Scientists believe that these can be treated with a
sub-hallucinogenic dose of LSD, which does not cause the wild visual
distortions associated with larger doses.
How can a hallucinogen prevent a type of headache? They have a
similar chemical structure to serotonin and exert their effects by
binding to some of the same receptors as serotonin, a property that
is exploited by some mainstream migraine drugs, such as sumatriptan
(Imigran) and methysergide.
Andrew Sewell and John Halpern, of McLean Hospital, Harvard Medical
School, conducted interviews confirming that LSD and psilocybin were
both more effective than conventional drugs at stopping a new cycle
of headaches, and that psilocybin was the best drug of all to abort
an attack. Halpern is developing full clinical trials. Studies are
also under way in Switzerland and the US using LSD or psilocybin as a
palliative care agent for patients with anxieties associated with
Ketamine is an anaesthetic developed in 1962 for human and veterinary
medicine. It works on a wide range of receptors and sites within the
brain, with recreational users reporting feelings of euphoria and
out-of-body experiences. It is neurotoxic at high doses (at least in
rats), but smaller doses could have safer medical benefits, and act
as an antidepressant.
In 2006, scientists from the US National Institute of Mental Health
injected 17 patients suffering from depression - and who had failed
at least six previous drug treatments - with either a low dose of
ketamine or a placebo. More than two thirds responded favourably to
the drug within a day. However, its psychedelic effects may have to
be smoothed out before it can be used therapeutically.
Users say that cannabis makes them feel relaxed and congenial. It is
also known to increase appetite. The drug, or its chemical
derivatives (cannabinoids), is used in the US as an appetite
stimulant for Aids sufferers and chemotherapy patients.
The cannabis-based medicine Sativex uses fewer psychoactive
cannabinoids and is licensed in Canada as an under-the-tongue
analgesic spray for patients suffering from multiple sclerosis and
advanced cancer. It is also available in Spain and the UK on a
case-by-case basis. Researchers are investigating the drug as a
potential treatment for conditions such as glaucoma, obesity and
diabetes, and as an agent against addiction and hypertension, as
revealed recently by scientists at the University of Nottingham.
Not everyone believes that using hallucinogenic drugs for medical
purposes will be fruitful, or that it is warranted. "You have to look
at research policy within the usual rules without giving way to
passion or modern fashions," says Griffith Edwards, the co-founder of
the National Addiction Centre.
He says that the risk to the individual of experiencing drug-induced
negative effects must be considered. It may be that a new generation
of psychotherapists are viewing the past with kaleidoscope eyes, and
that the medical benefits may be a mirage based on bad science in the
past when risks were under-reported and follow-ups inadequate.
While scientists and medics do not dispute the catastrophic effects
that these drugs can have on physical and mental health when taken
recreationally, the pace of research into the medical benefits of
such substances, when taken in a controlled setting, shows no signs
of slowing down.