The Swiss Scientist who ‘Tripped’ up: The discovery of LSD and where we are now
Updated: Sep 20, 2022
Emily Adams explores the fascinating evolution of the narrative and perspectives on psychedelic drugs.
Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD) was synthesised by Albert Hofmann in 1938. Originally intended to be a stimulant for respiratory and circulatory systems, LSD was dismissed by pharmaceutical companies1. But Hofmann couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something unique about his new compound. He said he had “a peculiar presentiment, the feeling that this substance could possess properties other than those established in the first investigations”1.
It wasn’t until five years later, in 1943, that Hofmann accidentally consumed some of the substance and discovered the hallucinogenic properties, describing it as a “kaleidoscopic play of colours”1. A few days later he took a higher dose. LSD and its potential as both a weapon and therapy were discovered completely by accident when a Swiss scientist mistakenly ate his latest project.
Once establishing the safe but hallucinogenic dose, he experimented on himself. And so began the tumultuous journey of psychedelics.
What is LSD?
LSD is a hallucinogenic drug that distorts how someone perceives reality2. Visual and auditory illusions, altered sensations, and mood changes make up this experience2. The risks of the compound must not be understated, potentially leading to negative experiences and flashbacks3. However, mounting research is demonstrating the potential of LSD and other psychedelics for psychiatric treatment in a controlled environment.
Uses of Psychedelics
The potent mind-altering effects of LSD were historically investigated as a psychological weapon in the Cold War. The CIA-sanctioned Operation MK Ultra carried out human experiments with the drug4. It was thought that the compound could brainwash and control their enemies4, though most of the reports were destroyed5.
By the mid-20th century, scientists had started investigating the potential of psychedelics not for mind-control but for therapy. Before the boom in recreational drug use in the 1960s-70s, psychedelics were championed as treatments for psychiatric diseases6.
In 1967, LSD was made illegal in the UK, putting the brakes on research. More recent crackdowns on psychoactive substances caused uproar among scientists who claimed that research on psychedelics is an essential tool for treating a number of neurological diseases and expanding knowledge about the inner workings of the human mind7.
More recently, researchers have been evaluating the medical utility of psychedelics (particularly LSD, psilocybin, and MDMA) when combined with psychotherapy. This concept has been around for centuries6, however, research has boomed in the last few decades. In 2020, there were 17 clinical trials using psychedelics to treat psychiatric conditions6.
The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) carries out psychedelic-assisted psychotherapies. Research has shown that LSD-assisted therapy has beneficial implications for anxiety associated with life threatening illnesses, with no negative side effects8.
MAPS’ research has recently turned to 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine, known as MDMA. Several studies have shown that MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD can reduce feelings of fear and anxiety, and increase wellbeing9. In a phase three clinical trial, 67% of patients diagnosed with severe PTSD did not meet the criteria for PTSD diagnosis following three therapy sessions9. The FDA recognises MDMA as a “breakthrough therapy” to treat post-traumatic stress disorder10.
Additional success in trials using psilocybin as a treatment of Major Depressive Disorder showed a large reduction of symptoms in 71% of patients, with long-lasting effects6. Substances are administered in highly monitored environments, with trained psychotherapists6.
Looking back at the history of LSD and psychedelics, it is strange to see how all this potential hinges on the mistake of one man. What is being described in Nature as the psychedelic ‘renaissance’6 comes down to this moment. Research progress has been subject to the ebbs and flows of the legal system and public scepticism. It is strange to think how this great potential in treatment comes from such a great accident in research.
1. Shroder, T. (2014) 'Apparently Useless': The Accidental Discovery of LSD. Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/09/the-accidental-discovery-of-lsd/379564/
2. Buddy T (2022) What to Know About LSD Use. Available at: https://www.verywellmind.com/the-effects-of-lsd-on-the-brain-67496
3. History (2018) LSD. Available at: https://www.history.com/topics/crime/history-of-lsd
4. Wikipedia (no date) Project MKUltra. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_MKUltra
5. Open Culture (2021) Inside MK-Ultra, the CIA’s Secret Program That Used LSD to Achieve Mind Control (1953-1973). Available at: https://www.openculture.com/2021/08/inside-mk-ultra-the-cias-secret-program-that-used-lsd-to-achieve-mind-control-1953-1973.html
6. Tullis, P. (2021) How ecstasy and psilocybin are shaking up psychiatry. Available at: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-00187-9
7. Gayle, D. (2015) Psychoactive substances ban will 'end brain research' in Britain, experts warn. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/may/29/psychoactive-substances-ban-end-brain-research-britain-david-nutt#:~:text=The%20UK%20banned%20LSD%20in,in%201971%2C%20halting%20all%20research.
8. MAPS (no date) LSD-Assisted Therapy for Anxiety Related to Life-Threatening Illness (LDA1). Available at: https://maps.org/lsd/lsd-switzerland/
9. MAPS (no date) MDMA-Assisted Therapy for PTSD. Available at: https://maps.org/mdma/ptsd/
10. The Petrie-Flom Center (no date) The Project on Psychedelics Law and Regulation (POPLAR). Available at: https://petrieflom.law.harvard.edu/research/the-project-on-psychedelics-law-and-regulation-poplar
From SATNAV Issue 24, pages 4 and 5.