LSD to treat alcoholism? Review of six studies says yes
You may not have noticed it, but there’s an ongoing ‘renaissance’ of research interest in the use of powerful hallucinogens to treat intractable addictions and other psychiatric disorders.
In the 1950s, psychiatrists began to promote using psychedelics by to treat schizophrenia and other conditions, and research into the medical uses of these psychoactive drugs began to take off. But funders pulled the plug on research, following political pressures that came with the advent of the War on Drugs in the United States during the Nixon administration and the ensuing spread of its dogma of prohibition to the rest of the world.
But in the last decade or so, a new generation of researchers cropped up, interested in harnessing the therapeutic benefits of now illegal, but powerful, mindbenders. A few of the new experiments that have met some success in the treatment of drug, tobacco and alcohol dependency are for: ecstasy, known chemically as 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine or MDMA to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, the ayahuasca vine from the Amazon for drug and alcohol dependency, and even psilocybin — the active ingredient in hallucinogenic mushrooms — for smoking cessation.
Even Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder Bill Wilson was said to be an early advocate of LSD treatment for alcohol abuse. In his official AA biography, Pass It On, he writes about taking LSD and finding that it facilitated a mind-expanding and spiritual state similar to the one that motivated him to stop drinking in the first place.
He writes: “It’s a generally acknowledged fact in spiritual development that ego reduction makes the influx of God’s grace possible…I consider LSD to be of some value to some people, and practically no damage to anyone.”
So the treatment of alcoholism using the powerful hallucinogen LSD — lysergic acid diethylamide — isn’t as unconventional as it may appear.
In fact, a new meta-analysis of clinical trials done in the late 1960s and early 1970s showed that a single dose of LSD helped alcoholics abstain from the bottle for the short and medium term. In general, the researchers say, the reported benefits from LSD lasted three to six months.
The retrospective analysis — the first-ever quantitative meta-analysis of LSD–alcoholism clinical trials– was done by Harvard neuroscientist Teri Krebs and clinical psychologist Pål-Ørjan Johansen from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim. Their findings are published in the March 9 issue of the Journal of Psychopharmacology.
“Alcoholism was considered one of the most promising clinical applications for LSD,” explains Dr. Johansen. This was what motivated them to sift through thousands of records to find data on randomized, double-blind trials that compared one dose of LSD to a placebo, he reveals.
Dr. Johansen says the problem with most studies done then was that there were too few participants, and this limited statistical power. “But when you combine the data in a meta-analysis, we have more than 500 patients and there’s definitely an effect,” she says.
In most studies analyzed by the two researchers, alcoholics given a single dose of LSD were almost twice as likely as those given a placebo to report less alcohol use at first follow-up. Specifically, of 536 participants from six trials the percentage of alcoholics that reported lower levels of alcohol misuse were:
• 59 percent of those receiving LSD
• 38 percent of those who received a placebo
“The effectiveness of a single dose of LSD compares well with the effectiveness of daily naltrexone (reVia, Vivitrol), acamprosate (Campral), or disulfiram (Antabuse),” Dr. Krebs and Dr. Johansen say. Those are the drugs currently approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat alcoholism.
“We were surprised that the effect was so clear and consistent,” says Dr. Krebs. “Given the evidence for a beneficial effect of LSD on alcoholism, it’s puzzling why this treatment approach has been largely overlooked,” the two researchers write.
The researchers also found that the differences between LSD and control groups were statistically significant from two months to six months after treatment. But they found that there was no longer a measurable improvement in those who had taken LSD on year later.
“But given the persistence of alcoholism, it’s perhaps more surprising that the effects of one dose of LSD lasted up to six months than it’s that it would ‘wear off’ a year later,” notes TIME health writer Maia Szalavitz in a report on the study.
Precisely because the effects don’t seem and are unlikely to be long-lasting, Dr. Krebs and Dr. Johansen suggest that further studies should be done to explore the benefit of using LSD in weekly or monthly treatment. More research is also needed to determine if some subgroups may gain more of a benefit and to find out if various doses have alternative effects.
Since LSD is known to have long-lasting effects on the personality, the authors say that treatment for alcoholics may make use of shorter-acting psychedelics like dimethyltryptamine (DMT) found in many tropical trees and plants, psilocybin and mescalin, found in the Central American peyote cactus.
The researchers also say that overall, there were few adverse events reported and the heterogeneity between trials was negligible. The findings also appear consistent with many reports of clinical experience and other trials, they say. The median dose of LSD used in those trials was 500 mcg.