drug research has always made headlines, the family of psychotropic drugs that strikes the imagination the most and that researchers have been interested in for a long time is without a doubt that of psychedelic drugs. Renaud Manuguerra-Gagné tells us about the best known of them, LSD, telling us about the chance discovery of its effects, on April 19, 1943.
Although scientists have known about lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) for 80 years now, little is known about its functioning, mainly because it has long been associated with recreational consumption rather than medical research. Today, some researchers want better access to LSD, especially for potential virtues that were lent to the psychoactive substance half a century ago.
Close-up of a rye ergot. Enlarge image (New window)
The rye ergot, which was synthesized to create the LSDé
The magic mushroom
The molecule that makes up LSD comes from a fungus called rye ergot. In the Middle Ages, it contaminated some cereals and caused poisoning. Its effects, including the convulsions it causes, would have even motivated some accusations of witchcraft.
In the 15th century, the fungus was cited in texts describing its use to accelerate contractions during childbirth. At the beginning of the 20th century, this effect was of interest to scientists, who used it in the manufacture of drugs that act on blood pressure.
In 1938, a Swiss chemist from the pharmaceutical company Sandoz named Albert Hofmann succeeded in synthesizing LSD from rye ergot while working on blood pressure. As the results are negligible, it sets the molecule aside for five years. He resumed his experiments on April 16, 1943, but this time he accidentally took a tiny dose of it.
Back home, he began to have intense hallucinations, which he described as “an uninterrupted stream of fantastic images, extraordinary shapes, whose intense colors have something kaleidoscopic.” After three days of reflection, he makes a decision that goes against all good practices in chemistry: he tests the new substance himself.
A mural of the chemist holding an LSD molecule. Enlarge image (New window)
A portrait of the chemist Albert Hoffman, who discovered LSD.
On April 19, 1943, Albert Hofmann was given a dose of 250 micrograms, the equivalent of a pinch of salt, of LSD. He thinks he is safe, but the amount is 10 times the normal recreational dose.
Quickly, he begins to feel agitated and asks his colleagues to help him return home. They go on a bike and the chemist makes a terrible journey. Later, he testified that he had had anxiety attacks, convinced that he was going crazy and that his neighbour was a witch. Everything that enters his field of vision is distorted as in a painting by Salvador Dali. He even feels that time has stopped. The date was named “Bicycle Day” to recall this walk considered the first true acid trip in history.
LSD is serious
During the 1950s, many researchers were interested in the use of LSD in a psychiatric setting, particularly for its effects on consciousness. For some study participants, the experience is similar to delirium associated with alcohol abuse. Researchers are also studying the psychedelic substance with alcoholic patients during withdrawal.
The CIA is also evaluating the potential of LSD as an interrogation or control tool during the MK Ultra program. Scientists on the CIA team make controversial ethical choices: they administer the substance to prisoners and patients with psychiatric problems without their consent.
A portrait of the chemist Hofmann being part of the exhibition LSD, the 75 years of a terrible child. Enlarge image (New window)
A portrait of the chemist Hoffman exhibited at a conference in 2018 that had the title: LSD, the 75 years of a problem child.
Other researchers consider LSD to treat schizophrenia and depression. Some of the results are encouraging, but still difficult to replicate. Some psychiatrists suggest that their colleagues take it to increase their empathy for their patients.
LSD then reached the general public during the 1960s, popularized by several artists and icons of hippie culture.