July 19, 2018

LSD as a therapeutic treatment


As the counter-culture drug of choice, the now infamous experimental use of LSD during the 1960s led to a moral panic about its effects on individuals and society. Today, media continue to report LSD as a drug that makes people dangerous, psychotic, and, in some cases, homicidal, further adding to public fears about it.

Studies reporting the possibility of using LSD as a therapeutic treatment for various mental health conditions were published from the 1950s. But following the USA’s criminalisation of LSD in 1966, clinical research was stopped and its potential forgotten for decades.1

Now, emerging research is starting to change the perception of LSD from a drug that can negatively affect mental health and wellbeing, to one that can help with symptoms of anxiety and depression. Its benefits are also being studied in relation to helping individuals who are trying to overcome drug dependency.2

What is LSD?

LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) is a synthetic chemical derived from a fungus that commonly infects rye.3 It’s considered an empathogen – a drug that enhances feelings of empathy and connectedness.4

LSD is described as a psychedelic (or mind-manifesting) drug because of how it changes perception, mood and thought. When taken in high doses, it distorts experiences of time and space in addition to producing visual hallucinations.5

The recreational use of LSD can result in an individual having an extremely negative experience or ‘bad trip’ and these can be very frightening.

But research into the use of LSD in a safe, therapeutic setting, with a controlled dose can positively change people’s perspective and ease fears and anxieties.

LSD as a treatment

Psychedelic drugs can affect the function and structure of the brain and promote neuron growth.6 Exactly how LSD affects the brain is complicated, but it seems to interact with multiple receptors and chemicals, such as serotonin and dopamine.7

Research is exploring the use of LSD in developing new ways of thinking and ‘resetting’ the brain’s habitual patterns of thought.

The renewed interest in LSD is building on studies conducted 40 years ago primarily focusing on treating:

  • depression
  • post-traumatic stress disorder
  • drug dependency
  • reducing anxiety in patients with a life-threatening disease.8

The role of LSD in improving mental health is linked to a weakening or ‘dissolution’ of the ego, helping individuals see the ‘bigger picture’ beyond their personal problems.9

For therapeutic treatment, LSD is administered under supervision in a safe environment, such as a psychologist’s office.

The psychologist or medical professional provides guidance and reassurance as the patient experiences the effects of the drug. Although the patient’s consciousness is dramatically altered, they still have a clear memory of their experience. 10

While LSD doesn’t seem to pose a risk for dependency, and no overdose deaths have been reported, some people do experience anxiety and confusion. There have also been rare cases of self-harm outside of a therapeutic context.11

People can have powerfully confronting experiences under the influence of LSD which is why administering it in a controlled environment where the participant is informed, supported and monitored, is important.12

LSD therapy trials

While there’s positive progress in LSD-assisted therapy, research into its potential therapeutic benefits has a long way to go before we can really understand its impact on the brain.

A 2016 study demonstrated that LSD has the potential to change established patterns of thought – and again flagged its potential as a treatment for depression and anxiety.13 Participants without a history of mental illness were given a single dose of LSD, which resulted in feelings of openness, optimism, and mood for around two weeks.14

Research on LSD as a therapeutic treatment for alcohol dependency has demonstrated similar results – with individuals experiencing improved levels of optimism and positivity, as well as an increased capacity to face their problems.15

One of the more promising trials was with patients facing a life-threating disease. The LSD was found to reduce anxiety associated with the anticipation of death.16 Patients also demonstrated an improved sense of self-assurance, relaxation, and mental strength, with the results lasting around 12 months.17

LSD therapy – what are the unknowns?

In contrast with existing therapies for depression and some other mental health conditions, which may take years to create change, the results of LSD-assisted therapy seem to have a positive impact quite quickly.

One question that remains is how often the therapy should be re-visited to maintain an individual’s progress.18 The viability of LSD as a treatment for people living with several other mental health conditions remains unknown.

As research continues to explore the full impact and medical potential of this drug, it’s clear that LSD offers a fascinating look into the human mind, and reminds us that we need to look beyond the often sensationalist headlines when assessing any drug.

  1. Leichti, M. E. 2017. Modern Clinical Research on LSD. Neuropsychopharmacology, 22114-2127.
  2. Bright, S. 2018. Opinion: Renewed interest in psychedelics as potentially useful therapeutic agents. Drug and Alcohol Research Connections.
  3. ADF. 2018. LSD. Alcohol and Drug Foundation: Drug facts.
  4. Nutt, David. 2012. Drugs without the hot air: minimising the harms of legal and illegal drugs. Cambridge: UIT.
  5. Ibid
  6. Ly, C., Greb, A., Cameron, L., Wong, J., Barragan , E., Wilson, P., Olson, D. 2018. Psychedelics Promote Structural and Functional Neural Plasticity. CellPress, 3170-3182.
  7. Brands, B., Sproule, B., & Marshman, J. 1998. Drugs & Drug Abuse. Toronto: Addiction Research Foundation.
  8. Leichti. 2017. ‘Modern Clinical Research on LSD’.
  9. Gasser, P., Kirchner, K., & Passie, T. 2015. LSD-assisted psychotherapy for anxiety associated with a life-threatening disease: A qualitative study of acute and sustained subjective effects. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 57-68.
  10. Ibid
  11. Brands et al. 1998. ‘Drugs & Drug Abuse’.
  12. Krebs, T., & Johansen, P.-O. (2012). Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) for alcoholism: meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 994-1002.
  13. Carhart-Harris, R., Kaelen, M., Bolstridge, M., Williams, T., Williams, L., Underwood, R., Nutt, D. 2016. The paradoxical psychological effects of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). Psychological Medicine, 1379-1390.
  14. Bright. 2018. ‘Opinion’.
  15. Krebs & Johansen. 2012. ‘LSD for alcoholism’.
  16. Gasser et al. 2015. ‘LSD-assisted psychotherapy’.
  17. Ibid
  18. Bright. 2018. ‘Opinion’.

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