Could LSD Help Treat Alcoholism?
In the 1950’s, government agencies and medical researchers started viewing alcoholism as a disease instead of a moral failure or lack of will power. Research studies began testing ways to help people with alcoholism stop or reduce their drinking.
Despite the existence of several effective treatments and widely available self-help meetings like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), alcoholism and alcohol misuse continue to devastate families and communities. Many people with the disease are not helped by available treatments or do not have the insurance coverage necessary to receive treatment for a long enough period of time for it to be effective.
The scientific community continues to develop and test innovative ways to treat this illness, and some are even re-evaluating old approaches that were discontinued because of public opinion. One controversial example of possibly effective treatment for alcoholism is the psychedelic or hallucinogenic drug LSD, which was first synthesized in 1938.
The origins of LSD research
In the late 1950’s, after observing that LSD produced profound and largely positive psychological effects on people, psychiatrists began administering LSD to individuals with chronic alcoholism in research and clinical settings. They theorized it could cause a life-changing experience that would prompt those with a drinking problem to change their drinking patterns. A 2012 meta-analysis of randomized controlled studies conducted during the 1960s concluded that a single dose of LSD had a significant and long-lasting beneficial effect on a drinking problem for 59 percent of the patients who received it compared to 38 percent of the patients who took a placebo.
Patients also reported gaining a new sense of awareness and spirituality, a feeling of unity with people and nature, and an inner peace that lasted up to six months after taking the single dose of the drug. Moreover, only eight out of 536 patients in the study had a negative reaction to the LSD – but suffered no lasting harmful consequences.
These encouraging results led to the expansion of research on the medicinal effects of psychedelic drugs in the U.S. and Europe to treat not only alcoholism, but also anxiety and depression. Even Bill Wilson, co-founder of AA, used LSD and believed that it could facilitate the kind of spiritual experience that many AA members find necessary for lasting recovery. In fact, Wilson underwent several sessions of LSD psychotherapy in the late 1950s. He felt that the LSD-induced spiritual experiences were very similar to his mystical experience with a hallucinogen called belladonna alkaloid in 1934 that in part led to the formation of AA.
The future of psychedelic drugs in alcoholism treatment
In 1970, as part of the Nixon administration’s new war on drugs, all psychedelics were re-classified under the Controlled Substances Act as Schedule I controlled substances – drugs that the federal government determines have no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. This effectively halted a highly productive line of research on psychedelics. Over the course of 20 years of research, psychedelics (mostly LSD) were administered to over 40,000 participants. Alcoholism was by far the most studied disease and the one with the most promising results. This prohibition on research lasted for nearly a quarter of a century.
Unlike early research, which could only examine the benefits of the drugs by observing participants’ behaviors, research on psychedelic drugs now use advanced brain imaging tools and more rigorous double-blind study methods, allowing better evaluation of the direct effects of these substances on the brain. Indeed, there are now a number of research trials focusing on the effects of psychedelics – most notably psilocybin (the drug in “magic mushrooms”) – on patients with psychological and existential distress associated with end-of-life cancer. These patients frequently struggle with severe depression and anxiety. Psilocybin has shown to help manage these conditions. A randomized controlled trial is also being conducted at New York University using psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy to treat alcoholism, following a promising open label trial.
While the research is still in an early stage, further studies in this area could help establish the medicinal use of psychedelic drugs alone or in combination with currently approved treatments for alcoholism. Given the devastating health, social and financial costs of alcoholism, any potentially effective treatment should be available to researchers for investigation in a responsible and scientific manner.
Cherine Akkari, MS
Cherine is a Research Associate at Center on Addiction