Psychedelics And Schizophrenia: What's The Link?

This article by Derek Beres was originally published on Psychedelic Spotlight, and appears here with permission.

Psychedelics and schizophrenia share a history. Now, researchers are looking at how psychedelics may change the future.

Can psychedelics help treat schizophrenia?

LSD-25 sat on a shelf for five years before Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann decided to reopen research on this strange chemical. One day while at work at Sandoz Laboratories, he accidentally let LSD seep in through his skin. The ergot derivative caused him to lose focus on his work. As Hofmann later wrote of the experience,

“Objects, as well as the shape of my associates in the laboratory, appeared to undergo optical changes … [I] fell into a peculiar state of drunkenness characterized by an exaggerated imagination. With my eyes closed, fantastic pictures of extraordinary plasticity and intensive color seemed to surge towards me.”

LSD was initially synthesized from ergot in 1938 by Dr. Arthur Stoll, Sandoz’s director (and Hofmann’s boss). The junior researcher stumbled upon it while looking for a drug that could treat nausea for migraine sufferers. Hofmann’s initial experience and subsequent “Bicycle Day” (when he intentionally dosed himself) are well-known. That Sandoz freely sent samples of LSD around the planet to inquisitive researchers and psychiatrists is also common knowledge.

A lesser-known story is that one psychiatrist in particular, Werner Stoll (Arthur’s son), treated advanced schizophrenics with LSD in the belief it could either diminish their hallucinations or help them make sense out of their own crippling visions. The glorious and terrifying images one “sees” on LSD piqued many an inquisitive mind. For example, Carl Jung learned of its effects and contemplated archetypal and symbolic possibilities.

By the 1950s, over 40,000 subjects had been clinically dosed with LSD, with 90 percent of European LSD researchers interested in discovering the origins of schizophrenia by using this novel substance. In fact, psychiatrists were told to ingest LSD themselves to better understand their patients’ symptoms. A number of them did just that.

The neurological similarities between psychosis and psychedelics make this a rich field of inquiry. In fact, before being termed psychedelic, these substances were called psychomimetic due to their ability to reproduce psychotic states. This connection has stuck. Psychedelics continue to impact schizophrenia today even though drugs like LSD and mescaline are not suitable therapeutics. They do, however, clue us in to the travails of psychosis.

Understanding Schizophrenia

As often happens, when schizophrenia made its way into mainstream vernacular, it became a victim of wildly different interpretations, including false assumptions. This is in large part due to the 1973 book, Sybil: The True Story of a Woman Possessed by 16 Separate Personalities, which sold 6 million copies and went on to become a popular movie three years later. While it turned out that Shirley Mason’s therapist was lying about those personalities, multiple personality disorder and schizophrenia became conflated in the public imagination. People started using the terms schizo and schizophrenic to denote multiple personalities, which is not the case.

Schizophrenia is often a gradually advancing disorder that begins with an episode of psychosis. The symptoms fall into three categories:

  • Psychotic symptoms including hallucinations, delusions, thought disorder, odd behavior, and altered perceptions, such as changes in smell, touch, or vision
  • Negative symptoms including difficulty expressing emotions, reduced motivations, an inability to experience pleasure, and reduced speaking
  • Cognitive symptoms including an inability to focus, problems processing information, and attentional difficulties

Given the crossover in effects between LSD and schizophrenia, the link is not surprising. While there’s no known cause for schizophrenia, it tends to emerge earlier in men than women. Risk factors include genetics, environment, and brain structure and function. The latter offers another clue to the connection with psychedelics, as LSD is often credited with helping catalyze the field of neuroscience. As Michael Pollan writes in How to …

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