[This is part of a series I'm doing here on Retrospectacle called 'Science Vault.' Pretty much I'm just going to dig back into the forgotten and moldering annuls of scientific publications to find weird and interesting studies that very likely would never be published or done today (and perhaps never should have.) I'll probably try to do it once a week (and if you have suggestions, please do email me with them.)]
Its been a few weeks since anything truly old and shocking as come across my plate as fodder for my ‘Science Vault’ series, but when I saw this paper, I knew I had to blog it. Basically, it is a 2007 paper by Sigafoos et al, published in Developmental Neurorehabilitation, which describes efforts in the 1960s and 1970s to treat autistic children with d-lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). A series of studies took place from 1959-1974, which involved administering LSD to children at school and cataloging their behavior. Beyond illustrating that the therapy didn’t work, it reminds us what a different place science was then.
(Continued under the fold….)
Autism was first described by Kanner in 1943 as a constellation of symptoms and behavioral traits which varies somewhat from person to person, making it inherantly difficult to diagnose and treat.The prevailing theory in the middle of the last century was that autism represeted “a childlike version of adult psychosis or schizophrenia.” Accordingly, children diagnosed with autism were subject to a bevy of biologic treatments (electroconvulsive therapy, sub-shock insulin, amphetamines, antidepressants, etc) which were also used in adult mental health treatment regimes. One of those types of treatments was the administration of LSD.
LSD was discovered, by accident, in 1943 by the Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman. [Authors note: I can only imagine how he "accidently" discovered it, but this serendipity might have started the trend towards wearing gloves during science. Anyway.] It was soon found that this “new drug,” which produced “fantastic pictures, extrodinary shapes, with intense kaleidoscopic play of colors” was pleasant at low doses and intensely disturbing at large doses.
Hoffman, with LSD molecule.
Hoffman’s employer, Sandoz, was intrigued by LSD and approved trials for its use in normal vs. schitzophrenic adults, which produced results promising enough for clinical potential. LSD soon found itself marketed as an experimental drug for the study of psychosis and a fascilitator of psychotherapy, available to researchers. Several autism researchers became interested in LSD, as a result.
The first report of LSD being used in the treatment of children was in 1959 at a conference in Princeton, which included references to a trial on autistic/schitzophrenic children. The following year there were five more such studies. Interestingly, these initial reports claimed that the results of LSD therapy were considered promising by academia. A formal study on 12 autistic children by Freedman, Ebin, and Wilson a few years later typified the methods: 10 boys and 2 girls were given varying doses of LSD (either 50,100,or 200 ug) on one or two occasions. The drug was given orally, at school in the morning, and subsequent behavior was observed carefully. Here’s what happened:
“The researchers noted that the signs of LSD inebriation became apparent within 15-30 minutes with effects lasting 4-5 hours…Some of the children became flush and their pupils dilated, but neither pulse nor blood pressure showed much change. Behaviorally, the effects varied. Three children were said to show evidence of catatonia (strange, fixed position of hands, bizarre postures, wavy flexibility of arms). None of the children ate their lunch until the drug wore off…Psychic effects were also noted, including rapid mood swings from extreme elation to extreme depression, increased anxiety, and signs of both visual and auditory hallucinations.”
Furthermore, the children were not induced to speak in response to the drug, and remained mute. Freedman concluded that there was little hope for the use of LSD therapeutically in children. Not that this discouraged other autism researchers–in fact, the research accelerated until concerns over recreational use caused Sandoz to stop supplying LSD for experimental purposes. That put an end to the studies pretty decisively.
The logic behind using LSD in the first place is rather interesting. Sigafoos et al described it thus:
The primary justification offered for the autism/LSD studies was based on the logic of default. Simply put, nothing much seemed to work very well, so why not try LSD?
It is shocking to also realize that ethical issues regarding LSD use in children received barely a mention. Even statements concerning the procurement of parental consent were glaringly brief, or even absent, leaving the question open as to whether the parents of the children who received LSD were even informed as to its effects. But in fairness, ‘subjects rights’ were still a relatively new notion in the 1960s and it was not unusual to have informal procedures for informed consent.
Sigafoos et al. 2007.Flashback to the 1960s: LSD in the treatment of autism. Developmental Neurorehabilitation. 10 (1), 75 – 81.
Hat tip Aaron Rowe for the story. If you liked this article, please vote for me so I can get a scholarship!