A prescription for acid? LSD for medical use? We might be getting closer than you’d think.

Ongoing research suggests LSD may be able to bring relief to people dealing with mental illnesses like depression and anxiety in conjunction with therapy and coaching. Though research had already begun before the counterculture movement in the 60s, it was stopped once “acid” became considered a threat to society.

After decades of silence, the LSD research is coming back to life with a resurgence of interest in it as a medical treatment. The people studying psychedelics are optimistic about the implications of the new research. As more studies are done, the hope among many is that instead of being considered a dangerous chemical, LSD will be able to help those who need an alternative to the standard treatments of today.

What Is LSD?

LSD didn’t start out as the classic hallucinogen. Its first use was as a medication, not that many years before becoming the familiar psychedelic we think of now associated with hippies and free love. Lysergic acid diethylamide – LSD – was initially discovered and synthesized by Swiss Chemist Albert Hoffman in the late 1930s.

What began as part of a search for a circulatory or respiratory stimulant through working with alkaloids from a fungus called ergot ultimately led to the creation of LSD. When it was first produced LSD-25 wasn’t even considered interesting enough for further experimentation. When Hoffman went to study it again later on a hunch, he accidentally ingested a tiny amount, and experienced the first “acid trip”.

Over the course of the experimentation and studies that then followed, the potent psychedelic was first used for psychiatric disorders, addiction, and bringing about desired changes in behavior and personality. Also considered a psychotomimetic, LSD can produce effects that are certainly profound and rather subjective. Ingesting LSD is known to induce altered states of consciousness and unmistakable distortions in perception. The effects can set in fairly quickly, within minutes, and last for several hours.

Changes to sense of time, one’s own identity, motion, and physical attributes of objects – shapes, sizes, colors – are all typical of an experience with LSD. Also common is synesthesia, where something like a sound can then manifest visually. Depending on the subject’s expectations, setting, and individual characteristics, the experience can range from terrifying to euphoric. Some have said that it is like a cleansing of one’s perception, that it becomes possible to perceive reality more clearly.

Because an LSD experience can be unpredictable depending on the dose, the person’s weight, overall health, or other safe and comfortable environment with trusted companions, or even better, someone who’s experienced.

How LSD Works

Chemically similar in this way to other psychedelics like DMT and psilocybin, LSD has a structure resembling serotonin. It’s generally believed that interaction with the brain’s serotonin receptors are primarily what leads to the hallucinogenic effects of these substances. More recently, the first high tech imaging has been done on the brain under the effects of LSD. This and studies on the structure of the receptors that LSD is opening up some interesting insights

Finding out more about what happens when LSD binds with receptors is hoped to help with an understanding that can then lead to creation of more effective pharmaceutical options. It seems possible that the way LSD is handled by the receptor – trapped, essentially – is what makes it stay as long as it does in the bloodstream, and cause its long-lasting effects. Decreased communication in the DMN – Default Mode Network – in the brain has been observed as well.

The DMN is in charge of how much information enters our awareness. This is what’s thought to contribute to the diminished sense of self, or ego, that is then replaced with the sense of being one with everything that’s so characteristic of an LSD experience. At the same time, communication has also been seen to increase across different areas of the brain when under the effects of LSD. These are parts of the brain that don’t usually talk, and the increased connectivity across them also explains a lot of LSD’s effects.

Significant increase in activity in the visual areas of the brain was observed on imaging of people after taking LSD – while their eyes were actually closed. Usually these visual parts of the brain only are active when taking in visual stimuli, so because the participants were not seeing anything with their eyes, it seems that this is in large part how the vivid hallucinations are produced. There is still quite a bit of uncertainty about exactly how LSD works in the brain but the studies underway are discovering answers.

LSD for Medical Use

After Hoffman first discovered LSD’s mind-altering properties, psychiatrists began using it with psychiatric patients in a few different capacities.

One was psycholytic therapy where over the course of several sessions, multiple doses are given to the patient. This is accompanied by psychotherapy to help them integrate their experiences. Another was in psychedelic therapy, in which case the patient is prepared psychologically for a one-time high dose of LSD. This is intended to cause a mystical or spiritual experience that can help them make long-term changes to their personality with continued work in therapy.

Considered to actually be relatively safe, it was believed that LSD could be used in these ways not to “cure” the person, but as a powerful companion to therapy that could help make it more effective by bringing out deep insights. Early on LSD was also found to be able to reduce pain and negative mental states in cancer patients.

And a lot of research done before LSD’s Schedule 1 classification was around its effects on alcoholism. One of the aspects of research being done now is the potential LSD has for helping people with addiction. It has also been observed that it may have a positive impact on mental health over time in long-term users. Microdosing – taking doses that aren’t high enough for hallucinations to occur – is also thought to help improve mood and cognition. These impacts are yet to be proven with scientific studies however.

But the implications of the new research are promising, especially for those who have had ongoing trouble with anxiety and depression.

It’s possible that quite soon we’ll start to see more treatment options available involving medical LSD, so once again the powerful effects can be safely used to help people who can benefit most.