LSD for therapy

March 6, 2014  10:29

Peter, 50, an Austrian social worker heard about the drug trial from a friend in Switzerland and decided it was worth volunteering, even if it meant long, painful train journeys from his native Austria. He didn’t have much time, after all, and traditional medicine had done nothing to relieve his degenerative spine condition, New York Times reports.  

On Tuesday, The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease is posting online results from the first controlled trial of LSD in more than 40 years. The study tested the effects of the drug as a complement to talk therapy for 12 people nearing the end of life, including Peter.

The new publication marks the latest in a series of baby steps by a loose coalition of researchers and fund-raisers who are working to bring hallucinogens back into the fold of mainstream psychiatry. Before research was banned in 1966 in the United States, doctors tested LSD’s effect for a variety of conditions, including end-of-life anxiety.

Before taking LSD, the 12 patients in the Swiss study met with Dr. Peter Gasser, who conducted the therapy, in his office for two or more sessions to get acquainted. The trial called for two drug-assisted courses of therapy, separated by a couple of weeks.

The drug’s effects would last up to 10 hours, after which the patient would sleep on a couch in the office, attended at all times by the therapist or an assistant. “I told them that each session would be right here, in a safe environment, and I am part of it,’” Dr. Gasser said. “I said, ‘I can’t guarantee you won’t have intense distress, but I can tell you that if you do, it will pass.’ ”

And so they did — and indeed it passed, though not always easily. Many wept, most squirmed; one 67-year-old man said he met his long-dead, estranged father somewhere out in the cosmos, nodding in approval.

All talked for periods with Dr. Gasser, who acted as an anchor in the storm and a fellow explorer, tracking the sources of those emotions. 

After about two months of weekly therapy, the eight participants who received full doses of LSD improved, and the four subjects who took a much weaker dose got worse. (After the trial, those patients were allowed to “cross over” and try the full dose.) Those findings held up for a year in those who have survived.

The drug caused no serious side effects.

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