Where do people get psychedelics from
It was rather by chance that the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann discovered the hallucinogenic effects of LSD on April 19, 1943 while looking for a circulatory drug. Since then, the drug has spread worldwide and has become widely known as a pop culture phenomenon. But the harmless image is deceptive. LSD is probably one of the most potent psychoactive substances known to medicine and is therefore also of great interest for brain research. Daniel Wacker is a pharmacologist and professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York.
SZ: Mr. Wacker, was the discovery of LSD and its hallucinogenic effects a curse or a blessing?
One hundred percent chance.
You have to explain that to us. After all, LSD is an illegal drug.
And rightly so. But from a scientific point of view, LSD is a godsend. Nerve cells in the brain communicate via so-called neurotransmitters, i.e. messenger substances such as serotonin. If these messenger substances in the brain get out of balance, mental disorders such as depression can occur. The discovery of serotonin was therefore one of the most important in neurophysiology. Today we know that LSD binds to serotonin receptors. So the drug is an excellent tool for finding out where serotonin is located in the brain and how it works.
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You yourself have been researching LSD for years. Where did your personal interest in the drug come from?
We know extremely little about human consciousness in science. LSD is almost no other substance suitable for researching the question of what exactly constitutes human consciousness. There are very few chemical compounds that, even in small doses, have such a dramatic effect on the brain as LSD.
Which effects do you mean exactly?
A profound and often lasting change in consciousness. Many people who have even been on an LSD trip report long-term effects: being less depressed, more balanced, and more sociable with those around them.
What is the scientific starting point for your research?
LSD triggers something different at a serotonin receptor in the cell than serotonin itself. You can think of these receptors as a mouthpiece - and LSD sends its own message into the cell. We are currently trying to find out exactly what this message is. So: what makes LSD different from serotonin at the receptor? The answer could help us develop new substances and use them to target people with depression or other mental illnesses. Perhaps we will succeed in separating the long-term and positive effects of LSD, that people are fundamentally and continuously happier, from the undesirable hallucinogenic effects.
So should LSD be used in the therapy of depression?
This is a controversial debate in science. LSD has very strong side effects. There are people who suffer from psychoses from overdosing. There is still a lot we need to understand before we can capitalize on it in medicine. However, there are enough studies that show that there is at least considerable potential for LSD in the therapy of depression.
Do the reports of persistent mood changes explain why the drug still has a harmless image in parts of the population?
For sure. In addition, unlike heroin or cocaine, it is difficult to die from an overdose of LSD; the drug is hardly toxic to the body. So far, there is no known case in which the use of LSD resulted in death. In addition, there is no risk of addiction, as LSD only affects the serotonin system. Other drugs such as opiates, amphetamines or cocaine, on the other hand, are extremely addicting. However, the mentioned psychoses are problematic. Taking too much LSD can lead to persistent delusions. Quasi a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder, with recurring memories of psychotic phases.
It is precisely these post-traumatic stress disorders that could be another area of application for LSD in medicine.
This is a big issue here in the US when it comes to soldiers returning from war zones. These people carry gruesome memories that keep coming back. This is very difficult to treat because antidepressants, for example, do not get to the heart of the matter. We see the potential for LSD to intervene in the psyche of the patient and cause permanent changes in the brain, so that the completely stuck memories and trauma are somewhat loosened and psychotherapy is more effective.
So should we fundamentally rethink our attitudes towards psychoactive drugs like LSD?
Again: The consumption of LSD is rightly forbidden and as a scientist I can only advise against treating yourself with it. At the same time, the drug has also been stigmatized in science for years, which makes research much more difficult. Basically, I think the way we think about drugs is problematic. As a scientist who looks at the data every day, I have to say: the world's most dangerous drugs are alcohol and sugar. Both substances cause significantly more harm to humans than LSD, cocaine and heroin combined - but are completely legal and the industry is even allowed to advertise them.
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