Studies indicate that LSD may help treat alcoholism or improve the quality of life for terminal cancer patients, but historical taboos have hindered the psychedelic's benefits.
David Nichols, professor of medical chemistry and molecular pharmacy, said previous research by another institution explored the administration of LSD to end stage cancer patients. Anxiety and physical pain were alleviated for a majority of the patients, and Nichols traced the relief back to a loss of the fear of death.
"The interesting thing about psychedelics is that they profoundly change the way one views the world," he said. "What part of the brain is so important that it can change the way we perceive reality? That's what keeps me interested."
Nichols has been studying psychedelics' effects on brain chemistry since graduate school in 1969, and explained that LSD serves as a molecular tool to help understand brain functions, which could decipher how emotions are created or find a cure for depression.
"Science is very reductionist. We could say that any feeling is a neurological change," he said.
Nichols' research, a combination of chemistry, pharmacology and neuroscience, is performed by studying a range of subjects such as cloned brain receptors, rats' behavior, molecular synthesis and computer models. Some of his findings were published in 2004, and included information such as how LSD works in the brain.
According to Nichols, brain receptors detect novelty and make people take notice of things, such as when a glass breaks in a quiet room. When a person takes LSD, the same receptors may fire and cause an everyday object to seem interesting.
"It creates novelty where novelty doesn't exist," Nichols said.
In addition to his work with LSD, Nichols performed the earliest work on what effects Ecstasy has on the brain, as well as research to activate receptors in schizophrenics' brains to help improve their memory and cognitive skills. Although the study is in early clinical trials, the results may help those suffering from schizophrenia to function successfully in the workplace or prompt a better treatment for Parkinson's Disease.
The stigmas surrounding the use of psychedelics, however, has prohibited many hypotheses from developing.
"The industry isn't interested," Nichols said. "No one has really cared much about these."
LSD, discovered in 1943, was hailed as a vehicle to understand emotional disorders because of its similarity to the chemical serotonin in the brain. After the �60s, though, the taboo of LSD's counterculture reputation extinguished serious studies.
Nichols said, "Imagine if someone discovered the transistor and then abandoned it."
Although Nichols said he has a lack of colleagues, recent findings at Johns Hopkins' University, which showed test subjects believed a controlled experience with LSD to be life-changing and spiritual, may help revive and ignite interest in the field.
"What this study will do ... is help this field back up and help it be explored the way it should be."
Nichols, who has a license to test substances deemed to be illegal drugs by the government such as LSD, does not advocate the recreational use of psychedelics.
"I think we should understand what purpose and use they have," he said. "I think they have medical uses, they just haven't been studied."
By Lauren Harrington - Summer Reporter
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