By Alfa · Mar 26, 2005 · Updated Jan 21, 2010 ·
  1. Alfa

    OTTAWA -- Medical experts suspect magic mushrooms and LSD may finally offer relief to people who get headaches so severe that they sometimes pass out in agony.

    Doctors at Harvard University are preparing to test LSD and psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) against what the medical community calls "cluster" headaches.

    They are among researchers who are looking at hallucinogens -- including magic mushrooms, LSD, MDMA (the drug used to make ecstasy) and ibogaine (a psychoactive derived from the root bark of an African plant) -- as potential treatments.

    These hallucinogens are being eyed as treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive behaviours, drug and alcohol addiction and anxiety and physical pain from terminal cancer.

    "It may not be long before doctors are legally prescribing hallucinogens for the first time in decades," a recent article in New Scientist magazine predicted.

    For Nanaimo chiropractor Doug Wright, the pain strikes without warning in the middle of the night, an explosive shot of pain on one side of his head that feels "like a red hot poker suddenly stuck through my eye."

    He bolts from bed. He can't lie down, he can't sit still; he paces and moves, and if he can't abort the headache instantly by inhaling high-dose, high-flow oxygen from the tank he keeps in his house, he drops to his knees, screaming in agony. Twice he has blacked out from the pain.

    Wright, who turns 49 this year, has suffered from cluster headaches for 30 years. His are "episodic": Three to five headaches a day, for eight to 10 weeks duration at a time. "Chronics" experience one to five headaches a day, day in and day out.

    "One of the old terms, if you go into medical sites for cluster headaches, is 'suicide headaches'," he said.

    Wright treats his using oxygen therapy and medicines that constrict the blood vessel walls in his head, and wants to be involved in the Harvard research. "I'm hoping that when the study comes up, I'll be in cycle, and I'll be down there," in Boston. "I'd like to participate, particularly if we can do it in a controlled, laboratory manner."

    He hastens to note: "I have not tried this treatment, yet, myself. It's illegal. The last thing I want is some person banging on my door, questioning what I'm doing, or what's going on"

    Decades after another Harvard alumnus proselytized the healing powers of hallucinogens, research into psychedelic medicine is experiencing a reawakening. But Timothy Leary wasn't advocating pain control: He pushed psychedelics as the path to enlightenment.

    In addition to testing LSD and psilocybin for cluster headaches, researchers at Harvard University won U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval in December to test MDMA-assisted psychotherapy on eight people with advanced cancer.

    MDMA, or 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine -- street names "ecstasy, Adam, XTC, hug, beans and love drug," according to the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse -- is a psychoactive. Studies on animals suggest it works on serotonin, the brain chemical that regulates mood and sensitivity to pain.

    The work is being partly funded by MAPS, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies based in Sarasota, Fla., whose mission is to support scientific research "designed to develop psychedelics and marijuana into FDA-approved prescription medicines, and to educate the public honestly abut the risks and benefits of these drugs," according to its website. MAPS is supporting a preliminary study at the Iboga Therapy House on the Sunshine Coast to test ibogaine (which is not a controlled

    substance) in treating cocaine, crack, alcohol and other chemical addictions.

    The group was founded by Rick Doblin, who received a PhD in public policy from Harvard and first became interested in the science of psychedelics at age 18, in 1971 -- the year he first tried LSD.

    LSD "moved inner psychological energies that had previously been frozen,"

    Doblin wrote in an e-mail exchange from Israel, where he met this week with officials from the Israeli ministry of health and anti-drug authority to prepare the groundwork for a pilot study in the use of ecstasy-assisted psychotherapy on people suffering war- and terrorism-related post-traumatic stress disorder.

    "In other words, I was all head and very little heart, and LSD stirred up my feelings and helped me to experience emotions."

    He says the resurgence of research into psychoactive drugs could ease suffering and lead to a "new, healthier culture." Before Leary's exhortations to a generation to "turn on, tune in and drop out" fanned government crusades making it illegal to use -- and test -- psychedelics, hundreds of papers were published studying psychedelics for conditions from frigidity to infertility.

    Today, Doblin says, researchers still face "skittish" hospital and university review boards and an absence of government funding for research into the possible benefits of psychedelics.

    Anecdotal and case reports suggest magic mushrooms or LSD may not only reduce pain from cluster headaches, but also stop the cycling course of attacks. According to Dr. John Halpern, an instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School who is heading the LSD/psilocybin cluster headaches study, no conventional medications exist that can do that.

    In Canada, the non-profit Organization for Understanding Cluster Headache

    (OUCH) Canada, which Wright helped found, is disseminating information and links to the studies on its website (

    "There are, I'm sure, medical doctors (in Canada) who are monitoring it and waiting to see the outcome of the trials," Wright says. "This is a terrible affliction. We're looking for some way to end our pain."Edited by: Alfa

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