Albert Hofmann first synthesized LSD on 16 November 1938. it was not until five years later that he would discover its effects, however. Some 75 years ago, on April 19th 1943, he realised the phenomenal effects of LSD first hand. Ingesting 250 micrograms of the compound, he experienced strong sensory and cognitive alterations, which reminded him of mystical episodes of his youth. That was the advent of the modern psychedelic age, which would go on to change society fundamentally.
The fruits of Albert’s work were short-sightedly halted by prohibition in the late 1960s. Now, after a half-century of neglect, the scientific community is once more beginning to pay attention due to evidence of these compounds’ efficacy. Outside of the academy, the possibility that these unfairly maligned substances might be key to tackling the mental health crisis, notably as powerful treatments for anxiety and depression, is starting to permeate public consciousness. As Hofmann’s tireless and diligent work begins to move from the peripheries of social acceptance and into the mainstream, we stand poised to cross over into a golden age of science and research of drugs and psychiatry, reversing the taboos that have held us all back for so many years.
When I first met Albert in the 1990s at a conference in Amsterdam, I thought he was the happiest man I had ever known. Reflecting on my own studies of cerebral circulation, I asked him if he’d ever thought that LSD might increase the overall capillary volume of blood in the brain, and he answered in his humble way that he was “just a little Swiss chemist, not a physiologist.” Since 1966, I had dedicated my life to developing a better understanding of how LSD works so we could better harness its powers to improve the human condition. Through the years, Albert and I developed a firm friendship based on this shared mission.
Following its discovery, there was a burst of scientific excitement for LSD in both medical and therapeutic circles. It was heralded as a wonder-drug in psychiatry, speeding-up and deepening the healing process by overcoming ego defences and accelerating access to psychological trauma so that it could be healthily addressed. The structural similarity between LSD and the neurotransmitter serotonin encouraged the nascent hypothesis that perception and behaviour might be driven by brain chemistry. Between 1943 and 1970, it generated almost 10,000 scientific publications, leading to its description as “the most intensively researched pharmacological substance ever.”
Then, in 1971, after LSD had broken out of the lab and become associated with the anti-draft counterculture, the US government pressed the United Nations to list the compound as a Schedule 1 substance amidst a moral panic. The prohibition of psychedelics and other psychoactive substances became commonplace. Albert’s breakthrough was ringfenced and consigned to the side-lines. Despite its ground-breaking potential, LSD became his “problem child.”
I promised Albert that, for his 100th birthday, I would obtain the first official permissions to carry out scientific research with LSD, and return what should be considered his wonder child to its natural role, an invaluable tool for neuroscience and psychotherapy. We obtained the approvals by his 101st birthday, but sadly, the taboo surrounding LSD continued to needlessly obstruct legitimate research. It was another decade until I was able to commence the world’s first brain-imaging study of LSD in human subjects, through the Beckley/Imperial Research Programme, a collaboration I set up with, and co-direct alongside, Professor David Nutt. The study unlocked the secret principles of psychedelic action: normally well-organised, independent brain networks destabilised and disintegrated, and the segregation between networks dramatically decreased.
In the peak psychedelic state, there is much greater connectivity between brain regions that usually do not communicate. These altered activity and communication patterns correlated with fundamental changes to experience, such as ego-dissolution, altered meaning, and a more fluid state of consciousness. In 2016, we presented the findings at the Royal Society in London. I thought it was an appropriate place to honour Albert’s legacy.
Our work, and that of organisations like us, is central to a scientific rediscovery of these compounds, that has been christened the psychedelic renaissance. It is still only with great effort and expense that any new study into one of these compounds can be authorised, but the handful of modern investigations so far completed have given us insights into the nature of information processing in the brain, novel theories of psychosis and of consciousness itself, as well as many directions for future research for treating anxiety, anorexia, addiction, PTSD, OCD, depression, opioid dependence, cluster headaches, tinnitus, and several neurodegenerative disorders.
As society moves towards an epidemic of depressive and anxiety disorders, Albert’s work has never been more pertinent. It is heartening that the taboo surrounding mental health issues is dissipating. Let us hope that the taboo surrounding these most promising treatments weakens too, and Albert’s problem child is recognised for the wonderchild it might be.
Featured image credit: “X-t1, fujifilm, fuji” by Viktor Forgacs. Public domain via Unsplash.