June 3, 2016

Researcher explores America's longest running LSD experiment

At Congress 2016, UCalgary postdoc Matthew Oram sheds light on drug's downfall as therapeutic tool
University of Calgary Post Doctoral Fellow Matthew Oram researched the history of Spring Grove State Hospital's (Maryland) therapeutic LSD experiments

Matthew Oram, a postdoctoral scholar in Community Health Sciences, presented his research.

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

It seems hard to believe but there was a time when psychedelic drugs like LSD were thought of as medicine — wonder-drugs that could potentially treat alcoholism, schizophrenia, alleviate distress in the terminally ill and even reduce recidivism in criminals. Its potential as a therapeutic tool saw LSD tested on an estimated 40,000 people between 1950 and 1963 including Hollywood stars like Cary Grant as well as unsuspecting GIs.

On the third day of Congress 2016, postdoctoral fellow Matthew Oram, with the Canadian Society for the History of Medicine, presented a look back to the Spring Grove State Hospital, (Maryland) experiments led by Sanford Unger, Albert Kurland and other researchers who through the late ‘60s until 1976 ran the largest, most sustained and systematic study of psychedelic drugs and psychotherapy yet attempted.

Engineering a mystical experience

As Oram explains, “psychedelic therapy” was used as a tool in a course of psychotherapy for conditions such as chronic alcoholism. “It was a relatively unconventional treatment, but the idea was to create a mystical experience so powerful and positive that it took people outside of their normal patterns of thought and everyday perceptions and allowed them to see their lives from a completely different perspective.”  In this light Oram says that LSD was basically a tool that brought alcoholics to an artificial turning point in their lives, which “essentially gave them the reasons and motivation to make a meaningful change in their life.”

In this light, Oram points out that while LSD and other hallucinogens demonstrated effectiveness in the course of a treatment of psychotherapy, it was more difficult to prove their efficacy in scientific, randomized, clinical drug trials which were increasingly demanded to demonstrate scientific rigor and, more importantly, were required to have a drug approved by the FDA.

End of the decade of love

In addition, despite their demonstrated potential as a tool in psychedelic therapy, hallucinogens were increasingly associated with the counter-culture and anti-war movements contributing to Nixon’s introduction of the Controlled Substances Act, which characterized drugs like LSD as “Schedule I substances,” essentially drugs with a high potential for abuse and “no accepted medical use.” 

Weighed down by the prevailing negative social sentiment toward their therapies and struggling to prove their efficacy under a clinical trial model, the psychedelic research eventually faded away. “The problem was that LSD psychotherapy wasn’t a drug treatment in the conventional sense,” explains Oram. “The drug helps to create an experience which can be used in the psychotherapy process. Ultimately the research died out because it was so hard to demonstrate the effectiveness through the methods required which were ill-suited for that form of unique treatment. So it was not necessarily that it was ineffective, it was just hard to demonstrate through the research methods that were required.”

Modern resurgence of LSD research

Oram’s research provides a very timely cautionary tale because, as he points out, psychedelic therapies are enjoying a renaissance with researchers who believe they have tremendous potential in alleviating post-traumatic stress, in helping terminally ill patients through the end-of-life, and in battling addictions.

However, Oram says that this generation of researchers will likely face the same issues and questions of the previous generation who, he points out, were also highly regarded scientists and researchers who published in the very best journals of the day.  “I hope they’ll be able to overcome the research difficulties of the previous era,” says Oram, “but I’ve read articles and you could change the date on them from 2012 to 1963 and it would read exactly the same … 'these results are promising but we need evidence from rigorously controlled random clinical trials …' they attempted to do that back then but it made the field far more messy — it brought confusion rather than clarity to the effectiveness of the drugs. So whether or not these trials will succeed in getting a better picture of the effectiveness of these drugs, I really don’t know.”