Can we treat mental illness with hallucinogens?

The man himself: Timothy Leary. See controlled substance pictures.
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If you were to happen upon the epicenter of drug-addled counterculture in 1969 -- the intersection of Haight and Ashbury Streets in San Francisco -- you would be more likely to believe you had found the source of mental illness instead of the cure. Among the multitudes of homeless, tie-dyed kids shuffling up and down the street with wild-eyed expressions, you might very well conclude that they'd gotten their hands on something mystical, but not necessarily something healthy.

The discovery of LSD's otherworldly effects by chemist Albert Hofmann in 1943 didn't necessarily lead him to a re-examination of everything he thought he knew about the properties of the universe, but the world's first LSD trip did lead the scientist to research the properties of the consciousness-altering drug itself.


However, by August 1965, Sandoz Laboratories (Hofmann's employer) had ceased production and distribution of LSD-25 due to its growing recreational use and the publicity it generated, much of it centering on recreational zaniness, "bad trips" and horrific hallucinatory experiences. Responsibility for the drug's distribution fell to the National Institute of Mental Health, creating a good deal of red tape for those wishing to do legitimate research on the drug.

While there is clearly something profoundly amazing about LSD and its effects, Western hesitancy to embrace spirituality -- drug-induced or no -- as a scientific means to an end has limited the amount of study the U.S. research establishment has committed to LSD. That, and the antics of one-time Harvard professor Timothy Leary.

Leary's early studies of hallucinogens were vastly overshadowed by his subsequent unorthodox and somewhat criminal lifestyle, and his excesses and publicity-seeking more or less derailed academic research of hallucinogens for several dec­ades. Leary's high-profile troubles with the law (including an escape from jail in 1970) and messianic promotion o­f LSD-25 to the masses guaranteed that better-behaved researchers in America's universities would suffer a loss of reputation -- and even government funding -- if they attempted to investigate the troublesome, mind-expanding substance.

Leary has left this earth (literally -- some of his ashes were sent into space after his death) but LSD has stuck around. There has been a resurgence in research into LSD effects on the brain, and even in the absence of much official study in the past few decades, there has been plenty of personal study and anecdotal evidence collected about the benefits and risks the drug might hold.

Can drugs like LSD help treat mental illness?


Effects of Hallucinogens: Are But My Problems Merely Cartoons?

1968: Lakota Sioux medicine man and spiritual leader Leonard Crow Dog during a peyote ceremony on the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota.
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Hallucinogens have played a starring role in the lives of writers, artists, visionaries, escapists, spiritualists, the curious and the bored for thousands of years. Cultures around the world have used (and, in some cases, still use) natural hallucinogens such as peyote as revered sacraments of their religious lives.

In Western cultures, discovery of hallucinogens has more often than not taken place in the laboratory and not in the jungle or temple. As was the case with the Spanish dismissing Aztec accounts of magical mushrooms, anecdotal evidence is often ignored until Western science studies the hallucinogen under its own terms.


Initially, it seems almost counterintuitive that any sort of rational, methodical approach could be applied to an experience as unusual as tripping. But it's precisely the mysterious and mystical nature of hallucinogens such as mescaline (found in peyote), psilocybin (magic mushrooms) and MDMA (also known as the drug ecstasy) that require a rigorous set of controls and standards to determine just what the heck is happening when someone is under their influence.

Hallucinogens affect the user by altering serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin is a hormone that helps nerve cells communicate with each other. It also has a direct effect on mood and a person's perception and sense of well-being. Researchers have discovered that depression, OCD and other mood disorders can be alleviated by changing serotonin levels through the use of antidepressants that block serotonin receptors in the brain.

Of course, hallucinogens pack more of a punch, but so far, nobody really knows how or why they create the changes in perception that occur. It's also unclear how -- or indeed if -- serotonin levels actually cause depression. Serotonin may be responsible for the regeneration of new brain cells, and it's surmised that stress inhibits serotonin production, blocking signaling between brain cells or even blocking production of new brain cells, adversely affecting mood. Of course, this is almost entirely theoretical, though there has been a positive link shown between the use of serotonin-boosting drugs and the diminishing of symptoms in those termed clinically depressed [source: WebMD].

As part of a study at John Hopkins School of Medicine, psilocybin was given to emotionally stable individuals who had never taken hallucinogens before. More than a year later, a majority of the subjects, ages 24 to 64, said the experience was one of the most meaningful and spiritual experiences of their entire lives. You can't say that for too many research projects.

So, if people who are mentally sound might possibly benefit on different psychological levels from hallucinogens, what about those who struggle with various forms of mental illness?

Brian Wilson in 1979
Chris Walter/WireImage

­First off, hallucinogens have a sound anecdotal history of exacerbating pre-existing or latent psychological problems. Brian Wilson, the gifted songwriter of the Beach Boys, experimented with LSD and now points to it as a trigger for the decades of mental anguish that followed. Syd Barrett, guitar player and a founding member of Pink Floyd, was also a heavy user of LSD who suffered a mental breakdown and seemingly never recovered. While LSD use preceded the onset of mental illness for these individuals, psychiatrists believe the drug doesn't directly cause mental illness, but rather causes latent mental illness to present itself symptomatically.

Hallucinogens might throw you for more of a loop than you bargained for. But for those already out on the loop, can hallucinogens bring them back? Keep reading to find out.


Hallucinogens Medical Uses

Research is showing promising signs that hallucinogens can indeed play a part in the treatment for mental illnesses and other conditions. How?

A key component of 12-step recovery programs is the processing of personal memories that produce shame, hurt or resentment, followed by voicing these feelings to another human being. You don't need to be a 12-step veteran to understand that it can be quite a time-consuming and less-than-appealing ordeal to search the depths of one's mind for hidden, painful events.


Many people who consume hallucinogens gain the ability to access and relive memories and events from the past. Some users can revisit traumatic episodes that had been more or less sealed off by the mind, enabling the user to come to terms with the event, gain new understanding of the circumstances surrounding it and psychologically put it to rest [source: Grinspoon]. This unique trait of hallucinogens can directly help those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) [source: Shroder].

Patients with terminal diseases who have trouble coming to terms with their imminent mortality appear to benefit from the use of MDMA, psilocybin and other hallucinogens. These substances provide users with the ability to detach themselves from their worldview, their sense of self and their surroundings, allowing those facing death to gain new perspective on their situation. Instead of spending what remains of their lives crippled by fear, anxiety and depression, dying patients report being able -- after using hallucinogens -- to see the importance in making the most out of the rest their lives, and also to come to terms with mortality [source: Randerson].

Hallucinogens may also provide relief for those suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). There are about 6 million people with OCD in America alone [source: Frood]. There have been noted instances of individuals with OCD self-medicating with psilocybin, which was reported to diminish OCD symptoms and behaviors [source: Perrine]. Interestingly, even though tolerance of the hallucinogens diminishes or eliminates their psychedelic effects with daily usage, the positive psychological benefits continue. Psilocybin appears to diminish the number of certain serotonin receptors associated with OCD and anorexia. Psilocybin provides relief to symptoms primarily only when the patient is directly under its influence, though some OCD sufferers have enjoyed weeks or even months of symptom-free living after they stopped using it [source: BBC].

Alcoholism and addiction to cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin have been successfully -- and often almost immediately -- cured with the use of the African hallucinogen ibogaine, which is derived from the root of a plant [source: Lotsof, et al]. Ibogaine creates a 36-hour hallucinatory experience during which users are able to access repressed emotional feelings, which can seem at times to appear one after the other, as if presented on flip cards. The 36-hour experience itself provides a break in the addiction cycle, but the emotional experiences reported by users seem to provide a new understanding of self and of the problem substance that eradicates the desire to continue feeding the addiction. The lack of withdrawal symptoms in many patients after using ibogaine is fascinating, especially considering the notoriously unpleasant symptoms heroin addicts usually experience when they go without the drug.

Although scientists, researchers and psychedelic travelers still can't explain exactly how or why hallucinogens so profoundly alter and affect the human mind, it appears that some of the secrets still held by these substances may hold the key to healing or even reshaping the conscious, sober mind.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • Bouchez, Colette. "Serotonin: 9 questions and answers." WebMD. Jan. 23, 2008.
  • Durdle, Heather, M.A., et al. "Major depression: the relative contribution of gender, MDMA, and cannabis use." Depression and Anxiety. Vol. 25, no. 3, Pgs. 241-247.
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  • Frood, Arran. "Psychadelic drug 'hope for OCD.'" BBC. Dec. 11, 2006.
  • Grinspoon, Lester, M.D.; Bakalar, James B. "Can Drugs Be Used to Enhance the Psychotherapeutic Process?" American Journal of Psychotherapy. Vol. XL, no. 3, pgs. 393-404, 1986.
  • Hoffman, Albert. "LSD--My Problem Child."
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  • Randerson, James. "Clinical trials test potential of hallucinogenic drugs to help patients with terminal illnesses." The Guardian. Aug. 12, 2008.
  • Shroder, Tom. "The Peace Drug." Washington Post. Nov. 25, 2007.