Today is Bicycle Day, but before you start wheeling out the deadly treadly, you might want to look a bit closer at what the day actually marks.
Bicycle Day celebrates Swiss scientist Albert Hofmann’s discovery of lysergic acid diethylamide or LSD in 1943, and the subsequent, and at times harrowing, ride home on his bicycle after deliberately ingesting a dose of the drug.
Stephen Bright from Curtin University’s School of Psychology conceded it might seem a little odd to celebrate the discovery of an illegal drug, but said there was much more to LSD than many people realised.
Dr Bright said the discovery of LSD’s psychedelic properties led to a new understanding of the brain, and a paradigm shift in psychiatry.
“LSD itself was also found to be effective in treating a range of mental disorders in the context of psychotherapy, including addiction, anxiety and depression,” he said.
“Just one or two sessions of LSD-assisted psychotherapy were found to have profound, rapid and long-lasting positive effects with little need for further interventions.
“So by the early 1970s there were over 1,000 papers published on LSD, and it had been given to at least 10,000 patients.”
Dr Bright said LSD was a very safe drug when given in controlled doses in a controlled setting.
“LSD is has a very, very low acute toxicity,” he said.
“There’s been no reported overdose in the literature from LSD, and the same cannot be said of psychiatric medications that are currently being used today.”
He also said LSD did not cause dependence and could represent a possible cure, unlike many medications which were designed only to treat symptoms.
But he said LSD had become a victim of US President Richard Nixon’s war on drugs in the 1970s, a campaign which had resulted in a legacy of misinformation.
‘An international psychedelic science renaissance’
More recently however, the tide has been turning.
“In the past 10 years there’s been an international psychedelic science renaissance,” Dr Bright said.
He said a Swiss study showed LSD-assisted psychotherapy was effective at reducing anxiety among people with end-stage cancer.
And a paper from the Imperial College in London demonstrated that a dose of LSD improved people’s mood for about two weeks without causing any long term psychological damage.
Dr Bright said it had also been shown that LSD could benefit people with treatment-resistant depression.
He said recently released brain imaging studies from Imperial College London provided clues about why this might be.
“It was because LSD leads to powerful changes in neural pathways in the brain, and this might be leveraged to assist people to see the world in a different way, and disengage entrenched beliefs that are leading to their depression or their addiction,” Dr Bright said.
Dr Bright said the recreational use of LSD was not recommended.
“When LSD is used in the context of psychotherapy, it’s conducted in a controlled, clinical environment, it’s conducted in a safe setting. And there needs to be a demarcation made between psychedelic psychotherapies and the use of recreational psychedelics,” he said.
“When people use psychedelics recreationally, they don’t know what drug they are taking and the environment they are taking it in may not be conducive to them having a positive experience.
“In fact, they may have quite a difficult experience.”
Hurdles to LSD use remain, psychologist says
Dr Bright said he expected much more research to be undertaken in the coming years.
“The rate at which research looking at psychedelics is occurring is happening at an exponential rate,” he said.
And the work is not just focussed on LSD.
Dr Bright said there were many other studies in countries like the US, Canada and Israel looking at other drugs, including MDMA, which he said was showing promise as medication for treatment-resistant post traumatic stress disorder.
But he conceded there were many hurdles to overcome.
“It is not in the interests of pharmaceutical companies to pursue LSD research since the drug is not patented, so they would not be able to recover the money from conducting research,” he said.
“Pharmaceutical companies would be far better maintaining the status quo in which psychiatric medications are prescribed for people with a mental disorder indefinitely.”
This article first appeared on ‘ABC‘ on 19 April 2016.