What LSD Taught Researchers About Mental Health Treatment

By Kelly Burch 03/23/18

During a recent study, researchers made a discovery about social perception that could lead to better treatment of psychiatric disorders.

scientists examining tubes in laboratory

Depression, schizophrenia and other severe psychiatric disorders can change how a person relates to themselves and the people in their social circle.

Now, researchers are using LSD to better understand how this change in social perception occurs, and how it might be treated. 

According to a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, German researchers recently looked at the way using LSD affects how people interact with themselves and others. Study participants were asked to interact with a human avatar on screen, which was controlled by researchers. 

When participants were given LSD, they were less likely to recognize the avatar as another person, researchers found. Lead author Katrin Preller, a researcher at the University of Zurich, told Gizmodo that this occurs because people on LSD have “temporary alterations in self-experience,” which change how they interact socially. 

She added that people with psychiatric disorders such as depression, schizophrenia and anxiety experience similar alterations, and thus social consequences. 

“While schizophrenia patients suffer from an incoherent self-experience, depressed patients show an increased self-focus, i.e. ruminating about the own person/personality,” she said.

Researchers went on to try to remedy this effect and restore normal self-experience. They theorized that changes in serotonin 2A, a type of the neurotransmitter serotonin, were responsible for the changes in self-experience for both people on LSD and people with mental illness. When study participants took LSD alongside a drug to block serotonin 2A receptors, they performed normally on the tasks. 

Preller said that this indicates that using blockers to stabilize a patient’s levels of serotonin 2A could be an effective treatment for some symptoms of mental illness. 

“When developing new medication we should therefore consider blocking the serotonin 2A receptor in patients with, for example, schizophrenia, which might lead to symptom improvement regarding self-experience but also social processing,” she said.

In other cases, stimulating the levels of this neurotransmitter, perhaps by using LSD, could help mitigate symptoms. “For disorders with increased self-focus such as depression or anxiety disorders, stimulating serotonin 2A receptors with psychedelics might indeed be beneficial,” Preller said. 

Despite the potential advantages, testing LSD as a treatment for mental illness remains difficult, since the drug is a Schedule I substance in the United States, with no accepted medical benefit as defined by the federal government.

However, researchers around the globe are beginning to consider the potential benefits of studying LSD. In 2014, it was used by researchers in Sweden for the first time in 40 years, in a study examining the psychedelic's effects on cancer patients. 

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.