Psychedelic Drug Research

This article is excerpted from Psychedelic Drug Research, recently released by Reality Sandwich Singles, a new series of novella-length e-books.


The Trip Begins

Psychedelic drug research began in 1897, when the German chemist Arthur Heffter first isolated mescaline, the primary psychoactive compound in the peyote cactus. In 1943 Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann discovered the hallucinogenic effects of LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) at Sandoz Pharmaceuticals in Basel while studying ergot, a fungus that grows on rye. Then, 15 years later, in 1958, he was the first to isolate psilocybin and psilocin – the psychoactive components of the Mexican “magic mushroom,” Psilocybe mexicana.

Prior to 1972, close to 700 studies with psychedelic drugs took place. The research suggested that psychedelics offered significant benefits in easing the teetotaling of alcoholics, the anxieties of terminal cancer patients and the symptoms of many difficult-to-treat psychiatric illnesses, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder.

For example, studies by Stanislav Grof and colleagues at the Spring Grove State Hospital in Baltimore with terminal cancer patients between 1967 and 1972 showed that LSD combined with psychotherapy could alleviate symptoms of depression, tension, anxiety, sleep disturbances, psychological withdrawal and even severe physical pain. Other investigators during this era found that LSD may have some interesting potential as a means to facilitate creative problem-solving. (See the section below titled “Creativity & Problem-Solving” for more about this.)

Between 1972 and 1990 there were no human studies with psychedelic drugs. Their disappearance was the result of a political backlash that followed the promotion of these drugs by the 1960s counterculture. This reaction not only made these substances illegal for personal use but also made it extremely difficult for researchers to get government approval to study them.

Things began to change in 1990 when “open-minded regulators at the FDA decided to put science before politics when it came to psychedelic and medical marijuana research,” says Rick Doblin, a public policy expert and head of MAPS. “FDA openness to research is really the key factor. Also, senior researchers who were influenced by psychedelics in the Sixties now are speaking up before they retire and have earned credibility.”

Chemist and neuropharmacologist David E. Nichols of Purdue University adds, “Baby boomers who experienced the psychedelic Sixties are now mature scientists and clinicians who have retained their curiosity but only recently had the opportunity to re-explore these substances.”

Research Begins Anew

The efforts of three privately-funded organizations have catalyzed much of the recent wave of research: California-based MAPS, founded in 1986 by Rick Doblin, The Heffter Research Institute, a New Mexico-based organization started in 1993 by David Nichols, and the Beckley Foundation in England, founded by Amanda Feilding in 1998. In Russia there is also the Russian Psychedelic Society, although this group has not been very active yet.

These groups seek out interested researchers, assist in developing the experimental design for the studies, and help to obtain funding and government approval to conduct clinical trials. They have initiated numerous FDA-cleared clinical trials in the U.S., as well as government-approved studies in Switzerland, Canada, Israel, Jordan, England, and Spain. So far the FDA has cleared nine studies to proceed, with more on the way.

Current studies are focusing on psychedelic treatments for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), severe anxiety in terminal cancer patients, cluster headaches, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), alcoholism and opiate addiction. New drugs must pass three clinical milestones before they can be marketed to the public: Phase I, for safety, usually in 20 to 80 volunteers; Phase II, for efficacy, in several hundred subjects; and Phase III, when more extensive data on safety and efficacy comes from testing the drug in up to several thousand people.

All the studies discussed in this book have received government approval, and their investigators are either in the process of recruiting human subjects or have begun or completed research on human subjects in the first or second stage of this trial process.

Psychedelic drugs affect all mental functions: perception, emotion, cognition, body awareness and one’s sense of self. Unlike every other class of drugs, psychedelic drug effects depend heavily on the environment and expectations of the subject, which is why combining them with psychotherapy is so vital.

“Psychedelics may be therapeutic (psychedelic therapy) to the extent that they elicit processes that are known to be useful in a therapeutic context: transference reactions and working through them; enhanced symbolism and imagery; increased suggestibility; increased contact between emotions and ideations; controlled regression; etcetera,” says psychiatrist Rick Strassman of the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, who from 1990 to 1995 performed the first human study using psychedelic drugs in about 20 years, investigating the effects of DMT on 60 human subjects.

“This all depends, though, on set and setting,” he cautions. “These same properties could also be turned to very negative experiences, if the support and expectation for a beneficial experience aren’t there.”

* * * 

Like what you’ve read? Don’t stop reading now! Click here to download the whole e-book. 

How might psychedelics be used as healing agents? Psychedelic Drug Research offers a definitive summary of the scientific investigations that have taken place since starting anew in 1990.

David Jay Brown’s work has been featured in numerous magazines, including Wired, Discover, and Scientific American (where this book originated as an article), and he is periodically the Guest Editor of the MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) Bulletin. He writes a popular column for, “Catch the Buzz,” about cannabis and psychedelic culture in Northern California.

Praise for Psychedelic Drug Research:

“David Jay Brown’s summary of research findings on psychedelics and their extraordinary range of therapeutic applications should prove extremely useful in this newly resurgent field of interest – a field touching on vast and poorly understood human potentials.” – Ralph Metzner, Ph.D.

“David Jay Brown’s comprehensive new eBook is a valuable resource that should be read widely by audiences interested in scientific research with psychedelics since the 1990s, when science triumphed over drug war politics and the FDA lifted the ban on psychedelic research…. [A] timely and important book.”  – Rick Doblin, Founder of MAPS 


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