Thoughts on LSD Treatment for Alcoholism

I ran across a press release ( href="">1
pertaining to a journal article (‘Hitting Highs at
Rock Bottom’: LSD Treatment for Alcoholism,
on the use of LSD for treatment of alcoholism.  When I saw it,
thought I'd blog about it.  As it happens, several people beat
to it.

Anyway, the topic is sufficiently compelling that I am going to post it
anyway, and try to add a little to what has already been said.

Sparkgrass Community, a bunch of med student
bloggers, along with a few other intellectual types, wrote about it href="">here.
 There's a little more discussion at href="">Science
, a blog by a science writer.   href="">The
Neurophilosopher's Weblog
reviews the article, adds
a few links, and has a nice illustration, to boot. There is a bit of
historical perspective at href="">Further:
Strange Attractor and beyond
.  Scienceblog
(not to be confused with THE ScienceBlogs) picked up on the story href="">here.
 Interestingly, there is a blog called Addiction and
Recovery News
, written by a worker at Dawn Farm, that href="">made
note of the article.   href="">Dawn Farm is a
long-term substance abuse recovery facility near Ann Arbor.
 The href="">Szasz
picked it up, too.  I've never been a
fan of Thomas Szasz, but I was interested to note that his followers
maintain a web presence
Another site to note the article was href="">Sushi
Tuesday, which appears to be a site devoted mainly to medical
and science news, but has a lot of other stuff.   href="">Hassenpfeffer,
a blog written by a resident of Saskatchewan, noticed it and wrote
about it, primarily because the author grew up in the town where the
experiments were performed.  Perhaps most strangely, it was
noted on the href="">Repbulican
National Convention Blog
, and href="">Old
, "the voice of the right."

There were href="">numerous
other mentions
on various Livejournal sites, among others.  In fact, I was
surprised at the number of bloggers who expressed an interest in the
topic.  Apparently, a wide variety of people have an interest,
a variety of reasons.  

I am interested in this for the same reason I was interested when there
was a news article about the href="">use
of ibogaine for alcoholism.  But the article about
LSD was more interesting.  For one, it was published in the
journal, Social
History of Medicine
 Two, the journal article provides a fascinating perspective
the medical history that puts the study in context.  Third,
article got me to thinking a lot.  Which is why I read those
of things.  

Unfortunately, much of the interesting material requires a
subscription, or academic access of some sort.  The abstract
openly available href="">here;
the full text is href="">here
(if you have access.)

The crux of the story is here:

In 1962, psychiatrist Sven Jensen, working in
Weyburn, Saskatchewan, accepted this challenge and published the first
controlled trial on LSD treatment for alcoholism.

Jensen relied on three pools of subjects for treatment: one group of
alcoholics took LSD at the end of a hospital stay (usually lasting a
few weeks); the second received group therapy; and Jensen’s
colleagues at Weyburn treated the third group with their own standard
approaches, excluding psychedelic therapy. In his two-year study,
involving follow-up periods of 6 to 18 months, The results of the study
demonstrated that 38 of the 58 patients given LSD remained abstinent
throughout the follow-up period. These numbers conveyed greater
significance when compared with the second group. Among those patients
receiving nothing other than group therapy, only 7 of the 38 involved
in the trial remained abstinent. Even those figures, however, showed
greater promise than the results from the group treated by
Jensen’s colleagues by other means; in this group only 4 out
of 35 patients stopped drinking.

The ARF countered with its own trials. Researchers Reginald Smart,
Thomas Storm, William Baker and Lionel Solursh designed an experimental
environment that isolated the effects of the drug before analysing its
efficacy. They administered LSD to subjects and subsequently
blindfolded them and/or employed physical restraints to restrict

They instructed observers not to interact with the subject, creating a
research design aimed to minimise the influence of all factors except
the drug itself. This approach sought more adequately to ascertain
whether the drug offered genuine benefits, or whether the perceived
advantages merely inspired clinical enthusiasm that corrupted the real
outcome. Subjects used in the ARF study showed some improvement, but,
overall, the results from this study demonstrated that LSD did not
produce results analogous to those claimed by the Saskatchewan group.
Conclusions from the ARF trial indicated the ineffectiveness of LSD
when measured under controlled circumstances. Given the authority
vested in this form of methodology, the ARF study represented damaging

The problem was that the more conservative, mainstream medical group
insisted on a particular kind of controlled study.  That is,
they wanted to get rid of the effect of the relationship between the
doctors and the patients.  


I generally support the notion of strict controls.  But I also
support the notion of doing studies under conditions that mimic actual
clinical practice.  If a drug works in the lab, but not in the
office, what good is it?  Likewise, if something is marginally
effective in the lab, but is remarkably effective in the hands of a
skilled practitioner, who care about the results in the lab?
 Does it really make sense to deny patients an effective
treatment, just because of a technicality?  

In point of fact, every decent psychiatrist on the planet will tell you
that the relationship with the patient plays a very important role in
the effectiveness of the treatment.  So, it is interesting to
see what happens when the relationship is factored out, but it does not
tell you anything that is directly useful.  

Note that I am not advocating this treatment.  The studies
never went far enough to come close to satisfying modern requirements
for FDA approval.  Plus, it obviously is counterintuitive to
think that you could treat an addiction by introducing the patient to
an abusable drug.  Probably most AA adherents would find the
idea repulsive.

One of the core ideas in substance abuse treatment is that the person
in recovery needs to swear off all methods of getting high.

Now, I don't consider this post finished, but it is getting a little
too long for my tastes...


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I took LSD once, many years ago. Not sure I would call the experience a "high". It was disorienting. One of the features was, when looking at something, that it would develop an increasing visual complexity, with patterns on patterns on patterns, until you looked away at something else. Even with eyes closed, these visual patterns would appear. Consequently I couldn't sleep.
When it wore off the next day, it was so nice to have everything look normal again. I don't think I would fear taking it again, but I have no desire to.
I do credit it with allowing me to dance. Not that it gave me better body and leg coordination or something. Just that I was socially so self-conscious that I would never dance. After the LSD experience, suddenly it didn't bother me that people might look at me while I was dancing in public. I suppose you might say that was some kind of therapeutic result, even though I wasn't seeking that end.
Just an interesting experience in my life.

By anonymous (not verified) on 13 Oct 2006 #permalink

One of the core ideas in substance abuse treatment is that the person in recovery needs to swear off all methods of getting high. Absolutely. **

I do think that this core idea ought to be re-examined. While it has a certain "common sense" feel to it, I don't really think that it meshes overly well with what is known about addiction. It almost seems like a quaint throwback to the days when addiction was thought to be a moral failing.

Given what is known about the neurochemical and neuropsychiatric issues that often accompany drug addiction, it doesn't strike me as being irresponsible to consider that neurochemical (ie pharmacological) treatments might be effective in certain situations. I've read some interesting anecdotal accounts of ibogaine being used to treat heroin addiction, and seen some pretty good evidence that psychostimulants can prevent substance abuse issues in the ADHD population, bupropion is already approved to treat nicotine addiction and is being studied to see if it will also help cocaine addicts, and opioid addiction is often treated by maintenance therapy either with methadone here or with heroin or morphine in some European countries.

Now, it is entirely possible that the effect of LSD on alcoholism was purely psychological, a personal decision based on whatever insight or self-introspection that they might have received, or it could be that the experience is so overwhelming that it completely obviates the urge to ever become intoxicated again.

I don't think I'd worry about replacing one addiction with another...I've never seen any good evidence that LSD is addictive, and it doesn't hit the dopamine receptors or act anywhere near the nucleus accumbens, which would be two main markers for addiction potential. That being said, I have no idea how increasing serotonergic activity in the Raphe nucleus would deal with alcoholism. I could've sworn I'd read something a while back tying alcoholism to withdrawal-induced excitotoxic rebound in frontal (or possibly prefrontal?) glutamate receptors, and so when a later event (such as seeing a bar or a beer) excites those regions, the patient has a craving for alcohol to lower frontal activity (via antagonism at said glutamate receptors, I think). I have no idea how on earth LSD would alter this cycle, though. That's where they ought to do more research, and it's certainly possible that LSD affects alcoholics or people with an as-of-yet uncertain predisposition towards alcoholism differently.

One thing that's curious about this is LSD works because of it's mimicking serotonin, yet now we have all these "therapeutic" SSRIs (serotonin reuptake inhibitors).


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