Results have been posted online from the first controlled trial of LSD in more than 40 years.
The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease published results Tuesday from a Swiss study that tested the effects of the drug as a complement for talk therapy for 12 people nearing their end of life.
Most of the subjects suffered from terminal cancer, and several died within a year of the trial, but researchers said the psychedelic drug apparently eased their fears as they faced the unknown.
“Their anxiety went down and stayed down,” said Dr. Peter Gasser, who conducted the therapy.
The patients met with Gasser for a couple of sessions before taking LSD at two sessions a couple of weeks apart.
Each session lasted about 10 hours, Gasser said, and the patients were permitted to sleep afterward at the office under the care of a therapist or assistant.
“I told them that each session would be right here, in a safe environment, and I am part of it,’” Gasser told the New York Times. “I said, ‘I can’t guarantee you won’t have intense distress, but I can tell you that if you do, it will pass.’ ”
Many patients wept, and most experienced some discomfort.
One 67-year-old man said he encountered his long-dead, estranged father during his trip and was granted his nodding approval.
Gasser spoke to them for periods throughout the experience, conducting what he described as patient-centered, open-ended therapy to track the sources of their emotions.
“I had what you would call a mystical experience, I guess, lasting for some time, and the major part was pure distress at all these memories I had successfully forgotten for decades,” said one subject, a 50-year-old Austrian social worker. “These painful feelings, regrets, this fear of death. I remember feeling very cold for a long time. I was shivering, even though I was sweating. It was a mental coldness, I think, a memory of neglect.”
But he surprised himself by talking about those feelings, which he was unaccustomed to doing.
“It surprised me,” said the subject, Peter. “I didn’t know I was talking away until Dr. Gasser made me notice.”
The eight participants who received full doses of the drug improved by about 20 percent on standard measures of anxiety after two months of weekly therapy, while the four subjects who took much weaker doses got worse.
Those patients were allowed to try the full dose after the trial ended.
Researchers around the world are trying to bring hallucinogens back under the umbrella of mainstream psychiatry after decades of neglect or outright bans.
“We want to break these substances out of the mold of the counterculture and bring them back to the lab as part of a psychedelic renaissance,” said Rick Doblin, executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, which has financed many of the studies.
Doctors had previously tested LSD for its effect on a variety of conditions, including end-of-life anxiety, before such research was prohibited in 1966.
But psychiatrists have been working in recent years alongside government officials and medical ethics boards to life restrictions on psychedelic research, including Ecstasy-aided therapy for post-traumatic stress.
While Gasser said his trial was too small to be conclusive, he said the results were encouraging.
His research team found no serious side effects besides temporary periods of distress – which he said was therapeutically valuable to the subjects.
“I will say I have been more emotional since the study ended, and I don’t mean always cheerful,” said Peter. “But I think it’s better to feel things strongly — better to be alive than to merely function.”