The patients, almost all of them men, were checked in for alcohol abuse sometime in the late 1960s. One day, instead of the usual therapy for addiction at the time, they were each taken into a quiet room, given varying levels of explanation of what was about to happen (for many of them, none at all), and given a single hit of LSD. The results included euphoria, powerful emotions, and psychological insights that often felt like a new lease on life. A few freaked out, but a little music helped.
And in the following time period up to six months, 59% of them (vs. 38% with placebo), reported less alcohol abuse.
That's according to two researchers who compiled and sifted through past cases studies, and found LSD to be an effective tool for treating alcoholism. Their findings are consistent with clinical experience throughout the decades of research with LSD, but such reports had always been limited by small sample size or less comprehensive data.
Researchers Teri S Krebs and Pål Ørjan Johansen dug up thousands of records from past trials, weeded out the tainted results, and ended up with solid data from 536 patients over six trials that, when dusted off and pieced together, yielded compelling results that acid does, in fact, work to treat alcohol addiction.
The trials they analyzed occurred from 1966 to 1970, but dating back to the 1950s, psychiatrists saw potential for using acid as a treatment for multiple disorders. Such studies waned and failed to gain traction, in large part because of the stigmas attached to the drug as it became more notorious. Individual studies never amounted to enough evidence on their own, and "the complicated social and political history of LSD" made it increasingly difficult to use in clinical research.
But lately, researchers like Krebs and Johansen have been turning back to psychedelics for potential benefits. Since the 1990s, Psilocybin mushrooms and LSD have been touted as potential treatments for depression, PTSD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, headaches, and anxiety for cancer patients.
How they exactly work still mostly puzzles researchers, with the exception of a recent report that mushrooms actually shut down large functions of the brain (as opposed to the stereotypical impression of a drug-addled brain crackling with activity).
But according to Robin Carhart-Harris, a psychopharmacologist at Imperial College London, quoted in a Nature article, “psychedelics probably work in addiction by making the brain function more chaotically for a period — a bit like shaking up a snow globe — weakening reinforced brain connections and dynamics."
In fact, for the patients in question, after shaking the snow globe once, the brain's usual habits seemed to settle back into place as the experiences of the acid trips gave way to the pre-existing anxieties and addictive behavior. Those who did improve, the change was recorded in following months, but no significant benefit at one year out.
And the researchers point out the shortcomings of using this data retrospectively, such as having limited knowledge about the patients, no knowledge about how different doses at different times might work, or how such treatments would work in comparison to the current state of addiction treatment.
But alcohol being probably the most abused drug on the planet, there's something profound and a little spooky about the image of an aging Don Draper unknowingly taking an acid trip, and coming down a little happier, and with his shit together for a few months. And there's definitely something sad about these patients' stories being mostly lost all these years.