Swiss Psychiatrist Fights Fear with LSD

Many psychiatrists shared Hofmann's hope that the substance he had discovered could help them gain insights into suppressed memories and trauma. Until the 1970s, LSD was frequently used to treat depression, anxiety and addiction and, less commonly, migraines, arthritis, paralysis and skin complaints. Thousands of scientific studies were published during that time, most of which were of dubious quality. A famous case was that of Auschwitz survivor Yehiel De-Nur, who, in six LSD sessions in 1976, relived his memories of the death camp. He later published a poetic and deeply disturbing book entitled "Shivitti: A Vision" about the experience.

Albert Hofmann's Problem Child

LSD discoverer Albert Hofmann died at the age of 102 on April 29, 2008 -- just two weeks before Udo Schulz was to travel by train from Murnau in Bavaria to Solothurn to take LSD as the first subject in the study. Schulz hoped that the substance could help him face the fears that had tormented him ever since he was diagnosed with cancer.

Hofmann had always warned against the dangers posed by his "problem child," and yet he continued to believe in the drug's healing powers up until his death. For the old man, the fact that research into the medical uses of LSD was now continuing after a 35-year hiatus represented the fulfillment of his "greatest wish in life."

Study director Gasser carries a heavy burden of responsibility. It isn't just a question of doing justice to Albert Hofmann's legacy. Many scientists from the United States and Europe, who have been fighting for years to be allowed to continue research into LSD and other psychedelic substances, are now pinning their hopes on the Solothurn-based psychiatrist.

"I would welcome it if it were easier to use psychoactive substances in therapy," says Rolf Verres, medical director of the Department of Medical Psychology at the University of Heidelberg Hospital. "In Germany, there is simply a deficit in this respect."

Elsewhere, however, a comeback of hallucinogens in psychotherapy seems possible. In the United States, Britain, Israel and Switzerland, a number of studies have been recently approved involving the use of Ecstasy and psilocybin, an agent derived from hallucinogenic mushrooms. The goal of the research is to determine whether these substances can help in the treatment of traumatized war veterans and patients with anxiety disorders. Some of the researchers involved in the studies say that initial results are consistently encouraging.

But before Peter Gasser embarked on his study, no researcher had dared to use LSD, the strongest and most notorious of the hallucinogenic drugs. The outcome of his study will play a key role in determining how authorities handle similar applications in the future.

'I Am Not a Messiah'

Gasser, 49, ignored media inquiries from around the world for almost one-and-a-half years, so as not to jeopardize his sensitive experiment. Today, as he invites SPIEGEL to visit his practice for the first time, the first thing he does is to make one thing clear: "I am not a messiah, nor am I someone who aims to change society." He is interested exclusively in research, not creeping legalization of the drug, says Gasser, and he wants to demonstrate that LSD can play a positive role in psychotherapy.

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