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 on society as a whole. Today, media outlets continue to report LSD as a drug that makes people dangerous, psychotic, and in some cases homicidal, further entrenching public fears about it.

In this, the second in our series looking at potential new uses for some of society's most controversial drugs, we take another look at LSD.

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 abandoned and its potential forgotten for decades.1

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


LSD (Lysergic acid diethylamide) is a part of a group of drugs known as psychedelics. It is also considered to be an empathogen, that is a drug that enhances feelings of empathy and connectedness.3 It is a synthetic chemical derived from a fungus that commonly infects rye.4

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

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

But research in to the administration of LSD in a safe, therapeutic setting, involving a controlled dose, is being found to positively change people’s perspective and alleviate fears and anxieties.

LSD as a treatment

Recent findings indicate that 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, such as serotonin and dopamine.7

Research is exploring the potential of LSD to encourage new ways of thinking and ‘reset’ the brain’s habitual patterns of thought.

The resurgent interest in LSD is building on studies conducted 40 years ago: primarily focusing on treating depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, drug dependency, and reducing anxiety in patients with a life-threatening disease.8 The role of LSD in improving mental health seems to be 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, and hopefully addresses the issue that brought them to seek treatment. Although the patient’s consciousness is dramatically altered, they maintain a clear recollection of their experience. 10

While LSD is not considered to pose a risk for dependency, and there haven’t been any deaths recorded from an overdose, some people do experience anxiety and confusion and there have been rare cases of self-harm outside of a therapeutic context.11 There are many reports also indicating that individuals can have powerfully confronting experiences under the influence of the drug, which is why administering it in a controlled environment where the participant is informed, supported and monitored, is important.12

LSD trials

While we are seeing positive progress in LSD-assisted therapy, the 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 out of London demonstrated that LSD has the potential to change entrenched patterns of thought – and again flagged its potential as a treatment for depression and anxiety.13 In this study, a single dose of LSD was administered to individuals who did not have a history of mental illness, and found it enhanced their 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 has picked up from much earlier research on the administration of LSD to patients facing a life-threating disease, where it helped to reduce anxiety associated with the anticipation of death.16 Here, patients also demonstrated an improved sense of self-assurance, relaxation, and mental strength, with the results lasting around 12 months.17

Unknowns remain

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 manifest quite quickly.

One question that remains however is how often the therapy must be re-visited to maintain an individual’s progress.18 So too, the viability of it as a treatment for people living with a number of other mental health conditions also remains unknown.

As research continues to answer these questions, and explore the full impact and medical potential of this drug, what is clear is that LSD offers a fascinating glimpse into the functioning of the human mind, and that we need to look beyond the often sensationalist headlines when making an assessment of 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. Nutt, David. 2012. Drugs without the hot air: minimising the harms of legal and illegal drugs. Cambridge: UIT.
  4. ADF. 2018. LSD. Alcohol and Drug Foundation: Drug facts.
  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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