People with life-threatening, terminal forms of cancer are subject to high levels of anxiety. Generally this stems from the awareness that death could be an imminent possibility. Many researchers have focused on how to increase the quality of life among individuals with terminal cancer prior to their passing and specifically focused on addressing levels of anxiety and depression. A new study that took place in Switzerland tested whether LSD may have therapeutic effects among terminal cancer patients. Researchers believed that the LSD may help reduce some anxiety associated with their diagnoses.
New Research (2014): LSD May Reduce Anxiety in Patients with Terminal Cancer
The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease recently published results of the first controlled LSD trial in over 4 decades. The study took place in Switzerland and was managed by a psychiatrist who tested the effects of LSD in addition to talk-therapy for 12 individuals nearing the end of their life. One patient learned of the experiment and figured that it would be worth volunteering himself for the research. Initially he was a bit skeptical and admitted to having never taken the drug prior to the trial. He even feared that the LSD may result in a bad trip, which would further increase anxiety.
Set-up: Prior to taking the LSD, all 12 patients had talked with study leader Dr. Gasser for a couple sessions to get acquainted with the study. The study involved 2 drug-assisted therapy sessions, each separated by 2 week intervals. The psychiatrist had told each patient that each therapy session would be in a safe environment and that the patients would be under his supervision at all times. He also informed them that he couldn’t guarantee that they wouldn’t get stressed, but he said that any distress as a result of the drug would eventually pass.
Therapy: During the drug-assisted therapy, the effects of the LSD lasted approximately 10 hours, and following exposure, the patient usually slept on a comfortable couch within the office. Each of the patients talked with Dr. Gasser who helped guide them through any emotionally painful experiences that they may have had. The talk therapy that was conducted was focused on the patient and considered to be an “open ended” style.
Patient perspective: Some of the patients cried during the therapy, others fidgeted and wanted to escape. One of the participants discussed having a meeting with his deceased dad out in the universe. Another patient detailed the fact that he had a “mystical experience” that lasted for a long duration and an upheaval of memories that he hadn’t remembered for years. The patient described the feelings as “painful” and were accompanied by “regrets” and a general “fear of death.”
Results: Of the 12 participants in the study, 8 who received standard doses of LSD experienced a 20% reduction in their levels of anxiety. The other 4 participants who took a weak dose of LSD actually got worse. Following the trial, the 4 participants that received “weak” doses were allowed to try the standardized doses and noted more beneficial anxiolytic effects. Researchers followed up with patients a year after the study and they still reported anxiety reductions from the LSD. Leader of the study Dr. Peter Gasser described the participants by saying, “Their anxiety went down and stayed down” following the LSD administration and talk therapy.
What these findings suggest…
Dosing plays a role: Clearly those who were administered a standard dose of LSD experienced reductions in anxiety, while those who didn’t actually experienced increased anxiety. This suggests that the anxiolytic effects may be dose-dependent for LSD.
- LSD may be anxiolytic: Some would suggest that taking LSD may be anxiolytic. But is it the drug that leads to the anxiolytic effects or is it the person going through the “trip” that results in their reduced anxiety. In any regard, the findings indicate that LSD may prove to have benefit among those with anxiety, especially if it is triggered by thoughts of an impending death.
- Hallucinogens may help anxiety: The findings also suggest that other hallucinogenic substances may help individuals with high levels of anxiety. Many of these hallucinogens, including LSD are considered to be among the least addictive drugs. Due to their low addiction potential and possible therapeutic outcomes, this class should be further investigated.
Further research with LSD is warranted
There are several reasons why further research is necessary. Not only was the trial safe, but proved to be worthwhile as suggested by participants. However, the study conducted was extremely small and patients may have experienced anxiety reductions as a result of talk therapy, which poses the question of whether the talk therapy alone resulted in anxiolytic effects.
- Extremely small sample: The study only consisted of 12 total patients, an extremely small amount. This study is miniscule compared to even some small studies. Moderate sample sizes of several hundred people would give these findings further credibility.
- Talk therapy: It would have been interesting to note reductions in anxiety from talk therapy alone vs. drug-assisted talk therapy with the LSD. Most would argue that going to therapy alone would be responsible for some reductions in anxiety.
Verdict: Hallucinogens may be beneficial in psychiatry
Certain researchers believe that hallucinogenic drugs like LSD could offer benefit to various forms of psychiatric conditions. Therefore, many are conducting studies to determine whether these substances offer enough benefit for certain conditions. Some researchers are making a push to get effective hallucinogenic drugs some mainstream exposure.
Research with LSD was initially banned in the late 1960s, but prior to the ban, the drug had been tested on a variety of conditions including anxiety experienced by those facing impending death. Recently, researchers have challenged the banning of hallucinogenic substances due to the fact that many may have therapeutic effects for certain conditions.
For example, new evidence suggests ketamine treats depression and bipolar depression. Other evidence suggests Ecstasy may help individuals cope with PTSD. Significant evidence even suggests psilocybin (magic mushrooms) treat depression. Many other studies with hallucinogenic drugs are being conducted to accurately report their effects. Should certain hallucinogens prove to be useful for treating certain conditions like anxiety, depression, and/or trauma, pharmaceutical companies may be able to create more focused treatments with less side effects.
The goal by many that support the usage of psychedelics is to change the public perceptions of them. They want people to realize that they should be further researched because they could prove to be highly beneficial. It should also be noted that many hallucinogens (including LSD) result in no serious long-term side effects. Participants also indicated that the LSD therapy was worthwhile.