Can hallucinogens really perma nently damage your brain and make you go mad? It's a fairly important question, since a lot of folks have done a lot of drugs LSD, MDMA, mushrooms and the not yet illegal Salvia divinorum. Conventional opinion is that these are indisputably dangerous. But how dangerous?
On the other side of the door, it's more than just freaky Jim Morrison fans who see an actual healing dimension to the use of these reality teasers. Some experimental therapists and researchers believe they provide clues to the mystery of the brain and mental illness. Many shamans see them as aids to the curative journey.
I am not sanctioning their use. But you might be surprised by what's below.
What the experts say ?
"There has been continuous research on hallucinogens in Switzerland, but not in the U.S. Currently, there is only one approved clinical trial in the U.S., at the University of Arizona Medical School, and that's on magic mushrooms as a treatment for obsessive compulsive disorder . The preliminary findings are that the drug is effective. Harvard research has looked at LSD to treat cluster headaches . The study of hallucinogens addresses the fundamental question, what is the physical and chemical basis of consciousness? We now know what cells are the receptors these drugs act on. This provides clues about how the perception of reality is encoded in the brain."
BYRAN ROTH , director, National Institute of Mental Health psychoactive drug screening program; professor of biochemistry, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
"There has been some controversy, but recent evidence is fairly good that the effects of hallucinogens in humans are similar to some symptoms associated with schizophrenia. Understanding how hallucinogens work is very important for developing a better and safer neuro-pharmacology for psychiatric disease . A drug like LSD acts on many receptors and causes many responses. We've worked on developing a way to figure out which [receptors] are the important ones for [their] unique effects. This way we can develop drugs that have more specific benefits for brain diseases as well as fewer side effects."
STUART SEALFON , professor of neurology, Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, New York City
"[Taking hallucinogens] would trigger schizophrenia only in those predisposed to it. They don't cause liver damage or kidney damage, but occasionally people put themselves in positions where they could come to harm. Reports of jumping off balconies are exaggerated, but a person who's not really with it can wander into traffic. The most likely harm is sexual assault. It's people in their late teens or early 20s we are more concerned about in terms of drugs triggering longer-standing psychiatric issues. Older people can have a psychotic break, but it's not likely they can develop a lifelong psychiatric disorder. Minor things like panic attacks can be dose-related -- the stronger the drug, the more likely. Someone who is a control freak and has never been stoned before can really panic."
WENDE WOOD , drug use and drug information pharmacist, CAMH, Toronto
"We are the only culture that has no formal and appropriate structures to guide a person entering an altered state. We tend to think such experiences make people go crazy, and that is often true because we do not have appropriate rituals and guides . Too many people think of perception-altering chemistry as 'party time.' We are meant and driven to seek altered states -- you see it in children who spin until they are dizzy and fall down. We respond to entheogens [psychoactive substances] because we have brain receptors that bond with their chemistry. Certain plants trigger a sense of other worlds and other beings who are 'more' than us. These experiences are often life-changing in positive and radical ways . To be very clear, experimenting with these tools can have terrible and life-destroying consequences, as can poking around in a fuse box with a metal screwdriver. The problem is not the entheogens but the lack of philosophical/spiritual/ritual structures to contain the experience."
DAVID LANG , shamanic practitioner, Eugene, Oregon
"We do a study that looks at normal activity in a brain slice. We add an electrical stimulus, then add a drug [to the tissue], then more electrical stimulus. There is a huge increase in network activity. It seems to mimic what people report of their LSD experiences: stimuli that wouldn't have seemed odd before seem very odd; they hallucinate and have cross-talk between senses; they may see a face starting to look green or have aberrations in time perceptions. In conditions like schizophrenia, people have thought perturbations and hallucinations, and if we can understand the cellular mechanisms, it gives us insight.' EVELYN LAMBE , assistant professor of physiology, University of Toronto