Could taking LSD help people make peace with their neuroses?
Psychiatrists in the 1960s certainly thought so. They carried out many studies looking at the effect of LSD and other psychedelics on people undergoing psychotherapy for schizophrenia, OCD and alcoholism.
The idea was that the drug would mimic the effect of hypnotherapy, making people more suggestible and open to changing their thought patterns. The results were reportedly positive, but the experiments rarely included control groups and so don’t stand up to modern scrutiny.
The work ground to a halt when recreational use of LSD was banned in 1971 – even though using LSD for research purposes was exempt.
Several decades on and LSD research is less of a contentious issue. This has allowed a team of researchers to revisit LSD’s suggestive powers with more care.
A team at Imperial College London gave 10 healthy volunteers two injections a week apart, either a moderate dose of LSD or a placebo. The subjects acted as their own controls, and didn’t know which dose was which. Two hours after the injection, the volunteers lay down and listened to the researchers describe various scenarios often used in hypnotherapy. They were asked to “think along” with each one. These scenarios included tasting a delicious orange, re-experiencing a childhood memory, or relaxing on the shore of a lake.
“Sometimes the suggestions had a kind of irresistible quality” says team member Robin Carhart-Harris. “In a suggestion which describes heavy dictionaries in the palm of your hand, one of the volunteers said that even though they knew that I was offering a suggestion and it wasn’t real, their arm really ached, and only by letting their arm drop a little bit did the ache go away.”
Once all the scenarios had been read out, the participants had to rate the vividness of the mental experiences they triggered on a standard scale.
The volunteers rated their experiences after taking LSD as 20 per cent more vivid than when they had been injected with the placebo.
Treating neuroses with psychotherapy requires the therapist to be able to influence the patient’s way of viewing themselves and their obsession. Co-author David Nutt, also at Imperial College, says the work suggests that psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy may provide a unique opportunity for the brain to enter the plastic, or malleable, state required for this to happen.
Peter Gasser, a psychiatrist working in Solothurn, Switzerland, who recently conducted the first clinical trial using LSD in over 40 years, commended the study and emphasized the importance of suggestibility for therapy. “The mind on LSD is easily able to make connections between ideas and thoughts,” he says.
Now that the team has verified the historical findings, the path is laid for them to explore the mechanisms underpinning LSD’s effect on consciousness, and the legitimacy of its use in psychotherapy.
Journal reference: Psychopharmacology, DOI: 10.1007/s00213-014-3714-z