[sixties-l] Scientists Test Hallucinogens for Mental Ills

From: radman (resist@best.com)
Date: Thu Mar 15 2001 - 18:55:41 EST

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    March 13, 2001

    Scientists Test Hallucinogens for Mental Ills


    Hallucinogenic drugs like LSD and peyote ^ derided as toys of the
    hippie generation ^ are increasingly drawing the interest of
    neurologists and psychiatrists who want to test the idea that
    they may be valuable tools in treating a range of mental

    Although there are anecdotal reports that psychedelic drugs can
    help some people with mental illness, the idea has never been
    substantiated by mainstream psychiatry and remains highly
    controversial ^ some would say outlandish.

    And even the researchers involved in the new work are not
    suggesting that people start medicating themselves with

    But researchers like Dr. David E. Nichols, a professor of
    pharmacology and medicinal chemistry at Purdue, believe the
    drugs' potential should be investigated.

    For example, Dr. Nichols, an expert on hallucinogenic drugs, said
    there were reports that symptoms of obsessive compulsive
    disorder, like washing one's hands dozens of times a day, subside
    under the influence of psilocybin, a hallucinogen derived from

    Dying patients given LSD have reported less pain and less fear,
    he said. Ayahuasca (a Brazilian plant extract) and peyote
    (derived from cactus) have reportedly helped alcoholics stay

    "We now know a lot about how they work in the brain, but we have
    not begun to investigate their potential for treating brain
    disorders," he said.

    Dr. Nichols is the founder of the Heffter Research Institute,
    begun in 1993 and named for Arthur Heffter, a 19th-century
    chemist who was the first person to identify a hallucinogenic
    molecule, mescaline, which he extracted from peyote. Backed by
    private donors like Laurence S. Rockefeller and Bob Wallace, a
    Microsoft millionaire, the institute is financing clinical trials
    with LSD, psilocybin and other hallucinogens to treat phobias,
    depression, obsessive compulsive disorders and substance abuse,
    said James Thornton, its executive director.

    Dr. Nichols said trials were under way or planned in Switzerland,
    Russia and the United States. Most of the work is being done
    overseas, he said.

    Dr. Janet Woodcock, director of the Center for Drug Evaluation
    and Research at the Food and Drug Administration, said that any
    proposal to study the medical use of a hallucinogen must meet the
    same rigorous medical and scientific standards used to evaluate
    any other unapproved drug.

    Furthermore, because hallucinogens are controlled substances, the
    investigator will need a license from the Drug Enforcement Agency
    to use such a substance in a clinical trial.

    The D.E.A. classifies hallucinogens as drugs with no known
    medical value ^ purely "drugs of abuse." But if a valid medical
    use is found for hallucinogens, Dr. Woodcock said, the F.D.A. has
    safeguards to prevent the drugs from being diverted and used for
    unapproved purposes.

    Separating a drug's beneficial effects from the harm it can cause
    is possible, said Dr. Alan Leshner, director of the National
    Institute on Drug Abuse. "Morphine works for pain, but it's
    horrendous when used in an addictive way," he said. "The same may
    or may not be true for hallucinogens. It's a mistake to confuse
    the two issues."

    Much has changed in the half-century since LSD was first used by
    psychiatrists and then found widespread recreational use in the
    1960's and 70's. Modern psychiatry has embraced drugs that affect
    the same brain molecules that are tweaked by hallucinogens. Tools
    for studying the brain's neurochemistry and response to drugs
    like LSD are far more advanced than they were in the 1960's and

    Moreover, many of the people who hold political and scientific
    power today came of age during the 1960's, and they, unlike their
    parents, are not as afraid of hallucinogens, Dr. Nichols said.

    By definition, hallucinogens are drugs that produce bizarre
    sights, sounds and feelings that appear to have no basis in
    reality. All work by changing levels of a brain chemical called
    serotonin, a substance involved in the modulation of many brain
    states, including depression, euphoria and appetite.

    While antidepressants like Prozac work by making the
    neurotransmitter serotonin linger in the gaps between brain
    cells, hallucinogens have a different mechanism of action. They
    are what are called serotonin agonists ^ molecules that are very
    similar to the body's natural serotonin and, when taken in large
    doses, push the serotonin system into overdrive, making many
    brain systems more sensitive, Dr. Nichols said. "It's like
    turning up the volume on your radio. Suddenly you can hear very
    weak stations."

    Thus, for example, hallucinogens amplify signals in the visual
    system to produce distortions of form and size. Instead of seeing
    one object, a person sees many copies of that object, he said.
    Perceived motion is similarly distorted. People begin to "hear"
    colors and "see" sounds or have out-of-body experiences. Some are
    so disoriented they experience a terrifying "bad trip."

    But very little is known about how hallucinogens can be used
    therapeutically, Dr. Nichols said. "The first thing we want to
    know is, Are they safe?"

    Dr. John H. Halpern, a psychiatrist at McLeans Hospital in
    Boston, is looking at this question in a study financed by the
    Heffter Research Institute and the National Institute on Drug
    Abuse. The study will involve members the Native American Church
    who, as part of their religious rituals, take peyote in a group
    setting but use no other drugs, not even alcohol.

    Using a battery of tests for mental and social health, three
    groups of Native Americans ^ 70 church members, 70 alcoholics and
    70 people from local communities in the Southwest ^ are being
    followed and compared for two to three years. The goal is to see
    whether peyote users are healthier or less healthy than the

    Similar studies in Brazil showed that violent alcoholics who took
    hallucinogens in a ritualistic context often stopped drinking and
    had higher blood levels of serotonin, said Dr. Dennis McKenna,
    Heffter's director of ethnopharmacology.

    Those changes may reflect an increase in their brain levels of
    serotonin, added Dr. McKenna, who is also a lecturer at the
    University of Minnesota Center for Spirituality and Healing,
    which seeks to integrate cultural and spiritual aspects of care
    with the biomedical aspects.

    Dr. Francisco Moreno, a psychiatrist at the University of
    Arizona, and his colleagues there have permission from their
    hospital review board and expect final approval from the F.D.A.
    soon to carry out a study on obsessive compulsive disorder and

    "We want to know if psilocybin can reduce symptoms, and if so,
    how much do you need to take?" Dr. Moreno said. Subjects will be
    closely supervised while under the influence of the drug and kept
    in the hospital overnight as a precaution.

    At the University of Zurich in Switzerland, Dr. Franz
    Vollenweider has permission from his government to explore
    hallucinogens in treating depression and schizophrenia. "We are
    interested in the nature of the human experience, of the
    subjective me-ness or self that guides our behavior," Dr.
    Vollenweider said.

    He wonders whether a medically facilitated experience in which
    the self temporarily "dissolves" might reduce the symptoms of a
    clinical depression.

    With money from the Heffter Institute, Dr. Vollenweider and his
    colleagues are conducting a three-year study of 64 depressed
    patients treated with psilocybin.

    In related research, Dr. Vollenweider plans to continue brain
    imaging studies of healthy volunteers who have taken psilocybin
    and LSD.

    "We can tease out specific brain regions responsible for
    hallucinations and ego boundaries," he said in a telephone

    At Harvard, Dr. Harrison Pope, a professor of psychiatry, is
    planning to carry out a study to see whether LSD can alleviate
    fear and anxiety in dying patients. Studies in the 1960's
    suggested that the drug reduced pain and improved mood, he said,
    but they were not done under rigorous standards.

    Eighty patients would be given an "active placebo," a drug that
    has physiological effects but is not hallucinogenic, or LSD under
    close supervision of a psychiatrist or trained mental health
    worker, Dr. Pope said.

    And in St. Petersburg, Russia, Dr. Evgeny Krupitsky, chief of the
    research laboratory at the Leningrad Regional Center of
    Addictions, is administering ketamine, an anesthetic with strong
    hallucinogenic properties, to alcoholics and heroin addicts, as
    they are treated with talk therapy.

    One day, advocates of this research say, their results will be

    "If hallucinogens ever find their way into mainstream medicine ^
    and I am convinced they will ^ they will never be handed out like
    Prozac," said Dr. George Greer, Heffter's medical director and a
    psychiatrist in private practice in Santa Fe, N.M. "People will
    need guidance. These are not drugs you administer every day."

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