Hallucinogenic drug LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) could help alcoholics give up drinking, according to an analysis of studies performed in the 1960s. A study, presented in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, looked at data from six trials and more than 500 patients. It said there was a “significant beneficial effect” on alcohol abuse, which lasted several months after the drug was taken.
At present LSD is a class A drug in the UK and is one of the most powerful hallucinogens ever identified. It appears to work by blocking a chemical in the brain, serotonin, which controls functions including perception, behavior, hunger and mood.
For this new study researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology analyzed earlier studies on the drug between 1966 and 1970. A total of 536 patients were taking part in alcohol treatment programmes, but some were given a single dose of LSD of between 210 and 800 micrograms.
For the group of patients taking LSD, 59% showed reduced levels of alcohol misuse compared with 38% in the other group. This effect was maintained six months after taking the hallucinogen, but it disappeared after a year. Those taking LSD also reported higher levels of abstinence.
According to the study authors, Teri Krebs and Pal-Orjan Johansen, “A single dose of LSD has a significant beneficial effect on alcohol misuse… Given the evidence for a beneficial effect of LSD on alcoholism, it is puzzling why this treatment approach has been largely overlooked.” They suggested that more regular doses might lead to a sustained benefit.
“We were surprised that the effect was so clear and consistent,” said Krebs. She said that the problem with most studies done at that time was that there were too few participants, which limited statistical power. “But when you combine the data in a meta-analysis, we have more than 500 patients and there is definitely an effect,” she said.
Prof David Nutt, had earlier called on the government to allow more research on illegal drugs. For this he was removed as the UK government's drugs adviser. He said, “Curing alcohol dependency requires huge changes in the way you see yourself. That's what LSD does. Overall there is a big effect, show me another treatment with results as good; we've missed a trick here. This is probably as good as anything we've got [for treating alcoholism].”
Psychedelics were promoted by psychiatrists in the 1950s as having a range of medical uses — to treat conditions such as schizophrenia, for example — before political pressures in the United States and elsewhere largely ended the work. “Alcoholism was considered one of the most promising clinical applications for LSD,” says Johansen. Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder Bill Wilson is said to have espoused the benefits of LSD in the book Pass It On: The Story of Bill Wilson and How the AA Message Reached the World.
In the last decade or so, however, a new generation of researchers have been interested in harnessing the therapeutic benefits of illicit drugs — such as 3, 4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA or ecstasy) for post-traumatic stress disorder, ayahuasca for drug and alcohol dependency, and psilocybin, the active ingredient in hallucinogenic mushrooms, for smoking cessation.
Robin Carhart-Harris, a psychopharmacologist at Imperial College London who has researched how psilocybin could treat depression, says that psychedelics must work at both biological and psychological levels. “Psychedelics probably work in addiction by making the brain function more chaotically for a period - a bit like shaking up a snow globe - weakening reinforced brain connections and dynamics,” he says.
“This is impressive and important work,” says Matthew Johnson, a psychiatrist also at Johns Hopkins University who is now running a small trial looking at the effectiveness of psilocybin to treat nicotine addiction. “Although this meta-analysis does not replace the need to test the approach in new, well-designed and rigorous clinical trials, it puts some more muscle behind the interpretation that the older literature shows hints that psychedelic therapy might really help addiction.”
However, Ken Checinski, a consultant addiction psychiatrist and independent researcher based in London, says that although the results are exciting, no pharmacological treatment should be seen as a magic bullet and that modern therapeutic techniques have improved. “The included LSD trials pre-date the use of psychological techniques such as motivational interviewing and cognitive behavior therapy,” he says.