Swiss Psychiatrist Fights Fear with LSD

Gasser is the president of the small Swiss Medical Society for Psycholytic Therapy, which advocates the therapeutic use of hallucinogens. The organization has about 50 members, of which about one-third are based in Germany. In the early 1990s, Gasser completed supplementary therapeutic training with psychedelic drugs, when it was still possible to do so in Switzerland with a special permit. He also tried LSD as part of the training.

The drug's effect has a lot to do with the setting in which it is taken, says Gasser. "We create a relaxed atmosphere here, which is why the patients remain calm." Music is sometimes played in the background during a session, and Gasser occasionally plays the drum which is hanging on the wall. So far, none of the subjects has had a bad trip, he says, and the sedative that is kept on hand for emergencies has never been used. "If you handle LSD with care," the psychiatrist claims, "it isn't any more dangerous than other therapies."

The drug is chemically related to serotonin, a neurotransmitter produced naturally in the body. It affects the same regions of the brain, particularly the limbic system, where sensory input is filtered, processed and evaluated emotionally. LSD essentially disables the filtering function, so that the brain is flooded with information. It also elevates the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the so-called corpus striatum, further amplifying sensory overload.

As a result, the drug influences sensory perception, thought and moods. The sense of space and time changes, and the boundary between the self and the environment becomes blurred. This can be perceived as an exhilarating feeling of becoming one with the environment, or as a frightening loss of control over one's body and thoughts. Experts are unanimous in the view that LSD is not physically or emotionally addictive, however.

'A Feeling of Mystical Oneness'

But can the high truly help people to overcome their fears? Borwin Bandelow, a psychiatry professor at the University of Göttingen and Germany's most prominent expert on anxiety, is skeptical. "For every therapy in the world, you will find someone who tells you this sort of thing," he says. Nevertheless, says Bandelow, he would like to see the effects of psychoactive substances for the treatment of anxiety examined in well-controlled studies. "It's an extremely interesting subject," he says.

Altered sensory perception, objects that suddenly seem alive and the feeling of floating in mid-air are all spectacular, of course, says Gasser -- but they are merely secondary phenomena. More important, he says, is the deep self-awareness and the trusting relationship the patient can quickly develop with the therapist. "It can only be achieved at this intensity using LSD," he says.

Within the framework of the study, Gasser is permitted to treat 12 patients suffering from anxiety disorders as a result of a severe physical illness. Eight of them receive a capsule of 200 micrograms of LSD each, in two full-day sessions spaced several weeks apart. The remaining four patients, the control group, receive a dose of 20 micrograms, which is too small to have much of an effect. "With a substance like LSD, a placebo-controlled procedure is, of course, questionable," Gasser admits, noting that the patient quickly realizes what he or she has swallowed. But that is just the way things are done in medicament research, he says.

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