Does the Illegal Drug LSD Have the Potential to Treat Depression?

20 Nov

Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), more commonly known as acid, was first synthesized in 1938 by Albert Hofmann (Stoll, 1947 as cited in Clark & Del Giudice, 1970). Due to the popularity of LSD as a recreational drug, it became illegal in the United Kingdom in 1966, with medical research and use being forced to stop in 1973 due to bad publicity (DrugScope, 2004). Before this date, LSD was used clinically on humans, with plenty of benefits to mental health reported. In recent years, rules have slackened, and LSD is making a comeback into Psychological and Medical research (Sessa, 2005). This blog is going to discuss the potential of LSD being used medically to treat mental health problems, in particular depression.

LSD psychotherapy can be administered in two separate ways, the first is known as Psychedelic therapy, and involves the individual being exposed to one single dose of the drug in carefully controlled settings (Perrine, 1996). The aim of this is to give them one experience that would help to alter their perceptions (Perrine, 1996). The other is Psycholytic therapy; this entails moderate doses being given, alongside other, more regular, psychoanalytic techniques (Perrine, 1996). Mental disorders treated by these therapies include anxiety disorders, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorders (Vanggard, 1964 ; Moreno, Wiegand, Taitano & Delgado, 2006). The general after effects of taking LSD include decreasing unhappiness, compulsive habits, anxiety, and increasing extraversion and self- realization (Savage, Savage, Fadiman & Harman, 1964).

Studies involving terminally ill cancer patients showed that taking LSD removed their fear of dying (Pahnke, 1969) and was effective at treating depression and anxiety (Pahnke & Kurland, 1970; Kurland, 1985). Even at doses which did not bring on a psychedelic state, LSD has been found to be as effective as opiates in reducing pain, but longer lasting (Kast, 1967). This has been put down to a decrease in anxiety, and therefore less distress about the pain, rather than less pain (Kast, 1967). Research proposes the idea that psychedelic drugs, such as LSD, affect the serotonin system in the same way as antidepressants (Riedlinger & Riedlinger, 1994), aiding explanation as to why it decreases depression and anxiety.

LSD has also shown promise in the treatment of addiction, in particular alcohol addiction (Abramson, 1967). Results have shown that between 50 and 90% of alcoholics who partook in psychedelic therapy were still abstinent six months later (Sessa, 2005). Another study claimed that 50% of 500 alcoholics were sober a year later, many of which had previously failed with help from Alcoholics Anonymous (Maclean, Macdonald, Ogden & Wilby, 1967). It has been proposed that alcoholism and depression can originate from the same reasons (Swendsen & Merikangas, 2000), suggesting that LSD affects this underlying factor.

Just before LSD became illegal for medical purposes, all doctors who had prescribed this drug to human patients were interviewed (Malleson, 1971). Of these doctors, only 7% said they thought LSD was unsuitable to be used medically, whilst 56% claimed that it was effective and that they would continue using it on their patients (Malleson, 1971). By 1965, there were over 1,000 clinical studies published claiming to have identified beneficial effects of LSD use is more than 40,000 people (Malleson, 1971). Another positive of LSD is that the harmful effects of it on the body are scarce; it is non-addictive, does not cause brain damage, and has very low toxicity (Luscher & Engless, 2006). Whilst anxiety, paranoia and delusions can occur (Passie, Halpern, Stichtenoth, Emrich & Hintzen, 2008), these can be minimized with proper practice (Strassman, 1984) and it has been claimed that overall there are few side effects and it is safe to use (Masters & Houston, 1970).

 Although recent research on the use of LSD in the treatment of depression is scare, previous results show promising outcomes and the idea it effects peoples emotions is well supported. Saying this, medical treatments have advanced greatly since 1973, and with the new drugs available, it is questionable whether the use of LSD would still be beneficial to the clinical scene. More research needs to be done on the clinical use of LSD in altering emotions, to clarify the potential of this drug in medicine.



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Kurland, A. A. (1985). LSD in the Supportive Care of the Terminally Ill Cancer Patient. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 17(4), 279- 290. doi:10.1080/02791072.1985.10524332

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Maclean, J. R., Macdonald, D. C., Ogden, F., & Wilby, E.  1967. The Use of LSD in Psychotherapy and Alcoholism. Bobbs-Merrill: New York.

Malleson, N. (1971). Acute Adverse Reactions to LSD in Clinical and Experimental Use in the United Kingdom. Br J Psychiatry,118(543), 229–30. doi:10.1192/bjp.118.543.229.

Masters, R. E. L., & Houston, J. (1970). Therapeutic Applications of LSD and Related Drugs. PSYCHEDELICS, The Uses and Implications of Psychedelic Drugs
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Moreno, F. A., Wiegand, C. B., Taitano, E. K. & Delgado, P. L. (2006). Safety, tolerability, and efficacy of psilocybin in 9 patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 67(11), 1735–1740. doi:10.4088/JCP.v67n1110

Pahnke, W. N. (1969). The Psychedelic Mystical Experience in the Human Encounte with Death. Harvard Theological Review, 62(1), 1- 21. Retrieved from

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Passie, T., Halpern, J. H., Stichtenoth, D. O., Emrich, H. M., & Hintzen, A. (2008). The Pharmacology of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide: a Review. CNS Neuroscience and Therapeutics, 14(4), 295–314. doi:10.1111/j.1755-5949.2008.00059.x.

Perrine, D. M. (1996). The Chemistry of Mind-Altering Drugs. American Chemical Society: Washington, DC

Riedlnger, T. J., & Riedlinger, J. E. (1994). Psychedelic and Entactogenic Drugs in the Treatment of Depression. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 26(1), 41- 55. doi:10.1080/02791072.1994.10472600

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Sessa, B. (2005). Can psychedelics have a role in psychiatry once again? The British Journal of Psychiatry, 186, 457-458. 
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Strassman, R. J. (1984). Adverse Reactions to Psychedelic Drugs: A Review of the Literature. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 172(10), 577- 595. doi:10.1097/00005053-198410000-00001

Swendsen, J. D., & Merikangas, K. R. (2000). The comorbidity of depression and substance use disorders. Clinical Psychology Review, 20(2), 173- 189. doi:

Vanggard, T. (1964). Indications and Counterindications for LSD Treatment. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 40, 427- 437. 


One Response to “Does the Illegal Drug LSD Have the Potential to Treat Depression?”

  1. ionatodd December 3, 2013 at 11:38 am #

    There is much debate about the use of LSD as a treatment for depression. One study testing the effectiveness of the drug showed that out of 15 patients 3 recovered and 4 showed improvements after a daily dose of LSD for one month (Savage 1952). Out of the other 8 participants 4 showed no improvements and for 4 of the patients their treatment was discontinued. This showing that at the time the benefits of LSD only stood to affect less than half of the sample used. However there has been some benefits of using LSD as in a sample of 100 patients with a mental illness 61 have recovered or improved (Sandison & Whitelaw 1957). Thus showing the benefits LSD possesses for treating depression. Overall there is little recent research assessing the effectiveness of the drug, this could be because of the introduction of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) in the mid-1980s. Since the introduction of SSRIs they have been favoured as a treatment type and there has been a move away from drugs such as LSD. However the question of their effectiveness in comparison to modern treatment is still yet to be answered therefore further research into this area is needed.

    Sanderson, R. A., & Whitelaw, J. D. A. (1957). Further Studies in the Theraputic Value of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide in Mental Illness. The British Journal of Psychiatry. 103. 332-343. Doi: 10.1192/bjp.103.431.332

    Savage, C. (1952). Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD-25): A Clinical- Psychological Study. The American Journal of Psychiatry. Vol 108. 896-900.

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