WSF19: The Promise of Psychedelics

On Nov. 16, 1938, Swiss scientist Albert Hofmann synthesized lysergic acid diethylamide, better known as LSD or “acid,” for the first time while working for Sandoz Laboratories. Although he succeeded, he put his discovery aside. Five years later, while revisiting the experiment, he accidentally absorbed some of it through his fingertips and experienced transcendence. Three days later he intentionally ingested 250 micrograms (0.25 milligrams) and proceeded to ride his bicycle home from his lab accompanied by his laboratory assistant. That day, April 19, is now known by psychedelic enthusiasts as Bicycle Day, or the day that the first acid trip took place.

For the next 25 years, psychedelics were a huge part of psychiatric study in both Europe and the U.S. More often than not, LSD showed positive effects in those who had taken it – one study in the 1950s conducted by psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond showed a 50 percent success rate in a group of recovering alcoholics who had not been able to quit drinking through any other means. However, at some point, the drug escaped the labs and made its way into the hands of not only the general population, but also Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary who, according to author Michael Pollan, became “the LSD evangelist.” Leary ended up being fired from Harvard due to his questionable research and promotion tactics (he was deemed the “most dangerous man in America” by then-president Nixon). Research into psychedelics all but ceased, and the war on drugs all but began.

That is, until fairly recently. Last Thursday night’s World Science Festival event, “Revealing the Mind: The Promise of Psychedelics,” consisted of four panelists discussing the pros – and cons – of psychedelics, which in one form or another have existed since human beings began keeping records. Moderated by Emily Senay, M.D., preventive medicine physician and assistant professor of environmental medicine and public health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, the event opened with an overview of the origins and evolution of psychedelics and how they affect the brain.

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Moderator Emily Senay speaking with the four expert panelists. Photo courtesy of World Science Festival.

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