This is the first article of the series of posts about most known drugs. Each week, we’ll discuss one, giving you information about their mode of action, observable effects, and quoting accounts of people exposed to the drug.
Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD) was first synthesised in 1938. It was used in psychiatric research to simulate experimental psychosis. US Army and CIA were working on using it for military purposes, and to control the mind of the suspects during interrogation. First conquistadors also describe very similar psychoses caused by consuming ancient Aztec potions, which were thought to be used as a method of contacting the supernatural powers.
A medium dose is 100-200 µg p.o.
Overdosing is problematic because the patient is prone to extensive psychosis and thus is unable to communicate with the researchers normally.
Small change in cells, massive effect on brain
Mode of action
The main hypothesis is that the LSD inhibit the serotonergic cell firing and preserves the up/down regulation of the postsynaptic serotonergic receptors. The neurones producing serotonin are mainly located in the raphe nuclei of the midbrain. Once inhibited, they will affect the locus coeruleus, which in turn will change the noradrenaline signalling for the sympathetic nervous system.
Areas influenced by the locus coeruleus include cerebellum, thalamus, hypothalamus, cerebral cortex and hippocampus. Raphe nuclei will also extend its projections to the brainstem and up into the brain.
It’s almost impossible to imagine how relatively small area in the brain can cause such an extensive effect on all our motor, visual and physiological control panels.
Figure above shows an animation put together by a person supposedly exposed to LSD (Reddit)
Observable effects (selected)
– adapted from (Passie et al., 2008)
• Intensification of colour perception
• Metamorphosis-like changes in objects and faces
• Intense (kaleidoscopic or scenic) visual imagery with transforming content
• Intensification of emotional experience
• Shortened attention span
• Unusual inner perception of bodily processes
• Mystical-type experiences
Accounts of exposed people
From Hofmann’s personal scientific diary:
“I was forced to interrupt my work in the laboratory […] being affected by a remarkable restlessness, combined with a slight dizziness. At home, I lay down and sank into a not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition, characterised by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dreamlike state […] I perceived an interrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes, with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colours”
After a while of repeated exposures
“Fantastic images surged in on me, alternating variegated, opening and closing themselves in circles and spirals, exploding in coloured fountains … Every sound generated a vividly changing image, with its own consistent for and colour”
Another account of similarly acting substance was an ancient Aztec preparation of teonanacatl, a mixture of various spices of Psilocybe mushrooms.
During his bloody conquest, Hernan Cortes described it:
“ there was dancing, there was weeping […] some [of the Aztecs] saw a vision that they would die in war, some saw in a vision that they would be devoured by wild beasts … some saw in a vision that they would become rich and wealthy”
During his travels in South America, Francisco Hernandez accounted that:
“When the priests wanted to commune with their Gods and receive a message from them… they ate this plant and a thousand visions and satanic hallucinations appeared to them”
Eva Mandez, feature in Life magazine, June 1957
“The visions came … they emerged from the centre of the field of vision, opening up as they came, now rushing, now slowly, at a pace that our will choose. They were vivid colour, always harmonious. They began with art motifs, angular such as might decorate carpets or textiles […] courts, arcades, gardens. Then I saw mythological beast driving a regal chariot”
Half of the medium dosage of LSD will be eliminated from the system between 1 and 2 hours after the consumption. The accounts of the people exposed also confirm that the hallucinations end about that time.
Side effects & Addiction
There are no obvious harmful side effects of the drug usage. Although the biochemical receptor model of addiction is highly debatable, even if true, LSD would be unlikely cause any addiction-like behaviour. This doesn’t mean you can’t be addicted to it psychologically.
Long-term usage effects are unclear, but there is some evidence it can cause harm to the memory formation and speed up the development of Alzheimer’s of schizophrenia.
MK Ultra Secret CIA Project
Lastly, the CIA experiments on LSD were a part of a broader project MKUltra. This pseudoscientific endeavour aimed at finding the new methods of extrapolating the information. LSD was a promising gateway to the suspects’ mind but was eventually dismissed as too unpredictable. In the 1960s, the agency developed substances of a greater hallucinogenic effect, and the LSD research was put off altogether.