[Main Article]

[Its been over 30 years]
since maverick psychologist Dr. Tim Leary armed himself with a mayonnaise jar full of LSD and tried to forge a finger-dipping psychedelic world revolution. Arguably in the throes of the most intense mid-life crisis ever known, he was not simply content to remain in his Harvard science laboratory diligently writing up reports of his psychedelic researches. No, Leary was quick to abandon conventional science and decided instead to embark upon a career which would eventually make him, in the eyes of the American government, the most dangerous male hominid on Earth. Quite an achievement for an ex-career-minded scientist.

And what happened to his psychedelic crusade? What happened to his acid dreams? In short they faded and were enveloped by history. The 60's finished, Leary ended up in jail, his research assistant Richard Alpert mutated into the kaftaned guru Ram Dass, Ken Kesey ditched his Magic Bus and wandered out of the public eye and the Beatles split up. But what happened to the science? Amidst the inspired lunacy and mind-bending chaos, what ever happened to all the hard research? If psychedelics were the most powerful chemical agents the human psyche had ever encountered, then what exactly did they teach us about consciousness and the brain? Moreover, what did they teach us with regard to the mystical experience and its neurochemical underpinnings?

In an apparently material Universe, human consciousness represents a truly mysterious phenomenon. Consciousness is not weighable or quantifiable as are atoms or molecules. Yet it is the very ground of our being. One hope of psychedelic research is to shed light on the brain mechanisms which underlie the mind.

With the American government's illegalisation of LSD in 1966 and with the subsequent illegalisation of almost all psychedelic drugs, scientific research in this field was effectively curtailed. It stopped dead. Whatsmore, no-one seemed to be complaining. All the research gathered by that time was put conveniently to the back of the filing cabinet, labelled in all probability as anomalous X-Files. Indeed, the taciturnity on the part of the science community towards the scientific/theoretical implications of the psychedelic experience proved total. And, in fact, this was how things stood, tick-tock, tick-tock, for 30 years.

[Getting It Right This Time...]
However, there is now a new breed of psychedelic researcher. And they're different. They do not throw wild parties, nor do they exhort young persons to "tune in, turn on and drop out". And they are dressed in traditional lab-coats and sensible shoes, firmly buttoned and tied. In short, they've got their empirical act together. Hallucinogen science is now on the increase, only with less publicity than 30 years ago and with a lot more caution and circumspection. This time around, science is taking it step-by-careful-step.

Leading the resurgence is the Heffter Research Institute (HRI), an ambitious American organisation inaugurated in 1993. They got their name from Arthur Heffter, the first scientist to isolate and systematically study a psychedelic compound from a plant - in this case mescaline from the peyote cactus circa the turn of this century. This name thus reflects the tone of approach to psychedelics taken by the HRI.

At the current time, the HRI is in the process of acquiring funds in order to set up an independent research facility in which to carry out sanctioned research with psychedelic agents. For 1996, they are planning various conferences as well the publication of the Annual Review of Psychedelic Research whose purpose will be to convey in a non-technical language the latest hallucinogen research findings (much of the research in this field is generally quite complex, involving discussions of synaptic sites where psychedelics are believed to operate). The HRI also hopes to be able to offer both pre and post-doctoral fellowships to encourage a new generation of hallucinogen researchers.

Incorporated into the HRI is a panel of seasoned advisors whose function is to help draw up psychedelic research protocols which will stand up to the scrutiny of governmental bodies who control the availability of psychedelics for science research. This panel includes psychiatrists, an attorney, and such luminaries as popular psychologist Charles Tart, leading neurophilosopher P.S.Churchland, and eminent Harvard ethnobotanist R.E.Schultes (whose knowledge of aboriginal psychedelic plant-use remains unsurpassed). The main thrust of the HRI is upon finding a clinical use for psychedelics. In other words, the second wave of psychedelic researchers are primarily concerned with putting psychedelics to use as medicinal agents, a practical agenda which is accepted by the various governmental bodies who control the availability of psychedelic agents for scientific research.

[The Medical Use Of Ibogaine]
One such psychedelic drug presently receiving much scientific scrutiny over its possible medical utilisation is ibogaine, an alkaloid derived from the West African plant Tabernanthe iboga. In the mid 1980's Howard Lotsof, an ex-junkie previously cured through his experiences with ibogaine, formed a company called NDA International Inc. to promote the medical use of ibogaine in treating drug addiction. So assured was he of ibogaine's capacity to break drug addiction, that Lotsof actually patented ibogaine treatments in the mid-80's.

Based upon Lotsof's work, intensive research is now underway at the University of Miami, Florida, to verify if ibogaine can be used to treat cocaine addicts. Apparently, it is the unusually intense and personally significant visionary effects of ibogaine that can break the curse of drug addiction. Lotsof describes the visions induced by ibogaine in patients he has treated as being like movie-clips.

"The presentation of visual material is rapid," says Lotsof. "Some patients have described it as a movie run at high speed. Others describe it as a slide-show, each slide containing a picture of a specific event or circumstance in the viewer's life."

Furthermore, Lotsof refers to these movie-clip visions as having Freudian and Jungian connotations as if they could convey deep and significant meaning to the experiencer, and that this process lies at the heart of ibogaine's efficacy in breaking patterns of addiction. In other words, Lotsof believes that ibogaine is able to make patients re- evaluate their lives and see the mistakes that they may have made and which may have led them into drug addiction.

According to Lotsof, of the patients treated with a single dose of ibogaine, the majority remain free from chemical dependence for 3 to 6 months thereafter which indicates that ibogaine therapy needs to be on-going and, if possible, be accompanied by other treatments.

At the University of Miami where ibogaine research is now underway, Phase 1 studies are in press with Biological Psychiatry. Since low doses of ibogaine were shown to have negligible physiological side-effects in experienced users, Phase 2 studies in which larger doses of ibogaine will be administered, are due to proceed once the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approve. If the results of these subsequent trial studies prove to be acceptable, then ibogaine will eventually be used to treat drug addicts.

[Ketamine Studies In Russia]
In Russia, clinical research with the psychedelic drug ketamine has been underway for a decade - as a treatment for alcohol addiction. Evgeny Krupitsky, head of the Research Laboratory of the Leningrad Regional Dispensary of Narcology, has reported that 70% of his patients who received ketamine psychedelic therapy (KPT) abstained from the demon booze for at least a year after the treatment. But how does ketamine work? What sort of experience can it induce to break the alcoholic habit?

"As a rule," explains Krupitsky, "... our patients began to see other goals, other values and pleasures in their lives, and this was quite possibly the main reason for their sobriety."

The only way to verify Krupitsky's claims is for other scientists to try and reproduce his findings. Thus, since Krupitsky has recently spread word of his research in the US., the VA Hospital in Tampa, Florida, is now embarking upon a similar ketamine research agenda which, since ketamine is not as heavily scheduled as other psychedelics, should receive official permission to proceed without much difficulty. And Krupitsky himself intends to initiate a new Russian study in which alcoholic patients will be given personality questionnaires both before and after KPT in order to elucidate the kinds of psychological change that accompany successful treatment.

[The Debate Over MDMA]
Charles Grob, an American psychiatrist based at Harbor-UCLA Medical Centre who is also co-founder of the HRI, is also involved in clinical research with psychedelics. Grob is currently investigating whether MDMA (a drug classed as a hallucinogen and more well known as Ecstasy) can be used in treating victims of end-stage cancer, in particular those unfortunate patients who do not respond well to conventional medical intervention.

In fact, since acquiring permission from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to go ahead with his research protocol, Grob is the only scientist in the world currently allowed to licitly give MDMA to human subjects (all of whom have had experience using MDMA).

Grob became interested in investigating MDMA for a number of reasons. Firstly, before MDMA was illegalised in 1986, there was anecdotal evidence that it was of use in treating persons suffering from severe pain and depression (a patient with multiple myeloma, a painful bone condition which did not respond to conventional medical intervention, was successfully treated with MDMA). And secondly, animal studies have shown that MDMA is able to increase thresholds to pain and to promote the analgesic actions of morphine.

Thus, Grob thinks that perhaps MDMA may be of medical use in treating human persons such as cancer victims who do not respond well to the usual treatments on offer. To be more precise, Grob is interested in assessing whether MDMA can be of use in fighting the severe pain and depression that such patients suffer from. In order to ascertain this, Grob has begun to carry out experiments in order to analyse what physiological changes are provoked by MDMA and whether these changes do indeed have medical significance.

Preliminary brain scans obtained by Grob reveal some interesting data. It appears that long-term users of MDMA show higher levels of cerebral blood flow than controls. Since a number of neuro- psychiatric disorders like Altzheimer's Disease, HIV Dementia and major depression are associated with low levels of cerebral blood flow, Grob see's this contrasting effect of MDMA as suggestive evidence that it may be of medical use in treating such conditions.

However, as we probably all know, MDMA has conversely been associated with neurotoxicity. In particular, there have been many reports of the detrimental effects of MDMA upon, for instance, serotonergic neurons both in the brains of animals given MDMA and in long-term human users of MDMA. In fact, MDMA always seems to be in the news (deaths from MDMA however, are usually associated with chronic dehydration). So, given the seemingly persistent controversy over the drug, then how does Grob view and, well, defend, his research?

"Concerning the issue of neurotoxicity," says Grob, " it is clear that the histopathological changes reported in the brains of laboratory animals are dosage and species related. Furthermore....it is important to note that the evidence of long-term adverse central nervous system sequelae in humans is very weak."

This `weak evidence' concerns experiments which have attempted to measure, indirectly and thus with some measure of uncertainty, levels of brain serotonin in long-term users of MDMA (serotonin is a major neurotransmitter in the brain, a neurotransmitter being a chemical which enables electrochemical impulses to be transmitted from one brain cell to another - obviously a crucial function). Although there has been evidence which indicates that long-term MDMA users have lower levels of brain serotonin than controls, these subjects also display, somewhat paradoxically, what can be inferred to be positive changes in personality. To be precise, they appear to be less impulsive and hostile than control subjects which suggests that although they have lower levels of serotonin, this is somehow connected with positive changes in personality.

Grob also points out that since MDMA is firmly established as a recreational drug in the raving youth populous (regardless of the possibility of neurotoxicity), then sanctioned physiological studies upon MDMA-users can be of use in establishing once and for all whether MDMA has any kind of medicinal potential or whether it is a drug to be rid of. Yet the stigma remains (as does the rife use of MDMA), and Grob admits to the difficulty of the situation he is embroiled in.

"Although we have not adopted the `politically correct' position on this issue," he says, " we do believe that open, fair and objective research evaluations of MDMA are essential."

Whatever the eventual outcome, Grob's preliminary findings have been published in the November/December 1995 issue of Behavioural Brain Science.

Grob's studies have been financed, in part, by the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) another American organisation dedicated to getting psychedelics approved as medicinal agents. With a membership of about 1000 (primarily scientists), MAPS sprang into existence in 1986 in response to the illegalisation of MDMA. Like Grob, they are interested in whether MDMA (and marijuana) can be used by clinicians in treating disorders currently untreatable by conventional methods.

Perhaps the leading figure in this second wave of psychedelic research is Rick Strassman, a psychiatrist at the University of New Mexico. A look at his groundbreaking studies reveals the spirit of a scientist determined to break through political bureaucracy in order to advance the frontiers of knowledge and add to the pharmaceutical armoury of the practising psychiatrist.

Strassman's work has centred around the prototypical hallucinogen dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a naturally occurring substance employed for millennia in the botanical potions and snuffs utilised by native Amazonian shamans. Classed as an ultra-short acting hallucinogen, DMT, when administered intravenously to humans, causes fantastic alterations in consciousness and yet is completely inactive within 30 minutes.

"The state of mind induced by DMT is quite compelling," says Strassman in defending his studies. "And to look at how DMT works, and to begin mapping out a cartography of the mental spaces encountered after a high dose of DMT also seems a worthy and challenging goal."

Since DMT is believed, strangely enough, to occur naturally in the human brain (it has been found in blood, urine and spinal fluid and precursor enzymes for it have been found in brain tissue), it was apparent to Strassman that an understanding of its modus operandi might shed some light on the development and possible treatment of endogenous hallucinatory conditions like schizophrenia. It is in this way that clinical science comes to make anti-psychotic drugs, substances which can block pathological forms of thought as evident in conditions like schizophrenia. Once you understand the neurochemical events which accompany abnormal states of mind, then you are in a position to develop drugs to treat such conditions.

Despite his clinical leanings though, Strassman was also interested in using DMT to explore the evermore popular brain/mind issue. This murky area of science is concerned with how the physiochemical brain (the unsightly mass of grey porridge-like stuff in our skulls) is related to the non-physical mind with all its attendant thoughts, ideas, fears, beliefs and so on. What exactly is the connection? Strassman argues that psychedelic drugs, since they alter consciousness, should be able to tell us something about how consciousness is formed in the normal brain. In other words, since psychedelics alter so-called higher cognitive functions connected with what it is to be human, then they can essentially be employed as probes to study the mind/brain interface. And since the US. Congress has declared the 90's to be the Decade of the Brain, then this move gives further credence to Strassman's studies.

It took Strassman a long 2 years to secure permission to carry out DMT studies with humans (once again, experienced psychedelic users were used as this is deemed to be a more ethical approach to such studies). Indeed, it was probably this magnitude of necessary effort which explains the extant lack of human-based hallucinogen research. A look at Strassman's struggle reveals the bureaucratic forces (a kind of lingering cultural symptom of the 60's) that face the potential psychedelic researcher. He had to get permission from all sorts of official bodies such as the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the FDA, and the ethical bodies which serve to monitor human-based experimentation.

Once he did acquire all the necessary permission, Strassman got some remarkable results some of which have recently been published in the Archives of General Psychiatry and the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. Perhaps the most interesting finding - and one which Prescience will continue to document in the future since interviews are on-going - concerned the DMT subject's reports about the DMT experience.

"Several aspects of DMT's effects are interesting," reports Strassman. "The rapidity of onset is quite remarkable; nearly instantaneous when given intravenously. Also the short duration is remarkable; people are quite over the inebriation within 20 to 25 minutes. Many people describe an "intelligence" within the DMT state, which is either just "felt" or "sensed" and sometimes actually "seen" with the mind's eye. People often lose insight into their participation in a drug study for several minutes, forgetting how they got into the mental state they find themselves so suddenly thrust into."

Subjects also reported that the DMT experience felt more real than normal reality. Indeed, it is presumably this novel reality encountered through DMT, especially with regard to the perceived contact with an `intelligent Other', that led to the use of DMT- containing plants by Amazonian shamans. These shamans consistently claim that their DMT-containing concoctions put them into direct contact with a transcendental dimension infused with an intentionality. It is interesting then, that Western DMT users report similar experiences. Furthermore, these findings of Strassman echo the findings at Harvard 30 or so years ago (in the days before Leary went wild). A study conducted by Walter Pahnke back then under Leary's supervision (as part of Harvard's Psilocybin Project) showed that theology students given psilocybin (the active constituent of certain `sacred' mushrooms) had mystical experiences identical to the kinds of mystical experience attested to in religious scripture. In other words, it seems that the mystical experience is somehow bound up with the neurochemical state of the brain.

"The commonality of experience described by various religious traditions," comments Strassman, " makes one wonder if the biological concomitants of these experiences are also similar {and} this has religious/spiritual significance."

Although the study of mystical experiences and neurochemistry might seem like compelling science, the fact of the matter is that most scientists are highly cautious when it comes to explaining, in scientific terms, something as precious and as guarded as the mystical experience. Those who police communion with the divine like religious leaders are quick to react when scientists attempt to reduce an epiphany to neurochemical events occurring in the brain. Indeed, this was the reaction which met Pahnke's findings in the 60's. Many religious authorities felt their toes being stepped on and Pahnke was refused funds to continue his research. Yet, science, with all its high- tech equipment, is clearly equipped to deal with these kinds of issue and it remains to be seen what science can teach us about the potentialities and extraordinary capacities of the human brain/mind.

[Does The Brain Recognise DMT?]
There was another finding of Strassman's which proved provocative. Strassman found that the human brain does not tolerate to DMT. Whereas the brain normally tolerates to psychoactive chemicals (repeated use means you need to use more to get the same experience), Strassman found that tolerance does not develop to the repeated administration of DMT. This suggests that, in the normal brain, DMT has some kind of function - i.e. that the brain recognises DMT and utilises it instead of developing tolerance to it. So far this putative function of endogenous (and illegal) DMT remains unknown but it might well be involved in the process of dreaming. This is a tenable hypothesis because we must repeatedly dream every night. If we are selectively denied that part of the sleep cycle in which we dream - known as REM sleep - then we will subsequently have more dreams at some later time (known as the REM-rebound effect). And so if there are indeed dream-inducing chemicals like, for instance, DMT, then the brain would by necessity have to not tolerate to DMT since toleration would stop dreams from taking hold. And it is also the case that both dreams and DMT-induced visions are of a similar nature. Both are hallucinatory conditions which, willy-nilly, we find ourselves utterly involved in.

However, Strassman has other ideas about DMT's putative function.

"Maybe," he says, " it mediates near-death experiences, or other `psychedelic' experiences which are elicited without drugs. Maybe it is released at death and birth..."

Well, these are certainly interesting suggestions which Strassman declines to go into much detail about since relevant data is sparse. So, getting back to more down-to-Earth speculation, Strassman also recognised a new clinical use for DMT. He found that he was able to administer DMT every half hour to his subjects and after each session he was able to discuss with them their experiences. He found that their "psychological resistances" gradually wore down through these sessions and that DMT was therefore revealing a new therapeutic potential. Whatsmore, since DMT is only active for 30 minutes, then it has an advantage over other therapeutic drugs whose effects last much longer and which require more in the way of supervision from the therapist.

[So What Does It All Mean?]
Although the medical application of psychedelics seems clear enough, with regard to how these substances work and of their full implications, this is less clear. At the very least, psychedelics alter consciousness in a dramatic fashion, and at the most extreme, as we have seen, such substances can elicit a transcendental experience. Indeed, there is a popular belief amongst many of today's psychedelic researchers that the very origins of mankind's religious impulse are bound up with our ancestor's discovery of hallucinogenic flora. Professor Nichols of the HRI comments:

"One can imagine an early hominid accidentally ingesting a hallucinogenic mushroom while foraging for edible foodstuffs. Knowledge of these drugs was handed down through the generations and led to the creation of rituals around their use. We have the hymns written to SOMA in the Rig Veda {the religious Sanskrit-writ scriptures of the Indo-Europeans which influenced the development of Hinduism}, or the ancient Eleusinian Mysteries of Greece, as only two examples of the extreme importance attached to these substances....What ever you believe in this regard, it is a simple fact that the use of psychedelic drugs can profoundly alter one's understanding and belief about life and its meaning. Man has been on an age-old quest to find his place in the Universe, and these drugs can be important tools both in understanding this quest, and in gaining meaning about ourselves as conscious creatures."

Ethnomycologist Gordon Wasson, the first European to experience psilocybin during a native Mexican mushroom ceremony in 1955, was the first to offer the prescient idea that the Soma of the Rig Veda as mentioned by Nichols, was in fact the psychoactive Amanita muscaria mushroom (known to be used by Siberian shamans). Wasson also went on to explore the mysterious potion taken during the Eleusinian Mysteries. Working with Albert Hofmann (the Sandoz chemist who first synthesized LSD in 1943) and other investigators, Wasson hypothesised that the potion contained extracts of ergot, ergot being a fungus found on rye and barley which contains LSD-like substances.

[Image of Mayan mushroom stone]
Mayan mushroom stone believed by historians to reflect a religious psilocybin mushroom cult. Many species of psilocybin mushroom grow in and around Mexico. A common species - Psilocybe semilanceata - is also native to the UK and other parts of Europe.

Whether or not these speculations are precisely correct is not the main issue. The main issue is the conceptual paradigm which sees a naturally occurring psychedelic agent of some kind lying at the heart of these sacred and religious traditions. And if it be doubted that the aforementioned traditions go far enough back in time to be considered instigators of the religious impulse, then one need only observe the rock paintings found at Tassili in Northern Algeria. Dating from before 6000 BC., these Neolithic images show mythical shaman-like beings covered in mushrooms. Terence McKenna, a leading ethnobotanical expert on psilocybin and DMT, has argued that the Goddess- worshipping peoples who inhabited Tassili, used psilocybin mushrooms (the species Stropharia cubensis) and that psilocybin influenced their beliefs about Nature and helped catalyse those aspects of human consciousness (like language, ritual, art etc) which make our species so unique (McKenna is planning a book on this subject - stay tuned to Prescience for more details).

[Neurochemical Alchemy]
If we accept that psychedelic plants have played a role in shaping human belief systems and the development of human culture, then the question still arises as to how these agents work their effects in the human brain. According to all the research amassed thus far, it appears that psychedelics alter the neuronal patterns of firing activity in neurons which utilise the neurotransmitter serotonin. In particular, it has been established that psychedelics as diverse in structure as psilocybin and mescaline (belonging to the chemical classes indolamine and phenethylamine respectively) are able to infiltrate and thus influence serotonergic neurons known as 5-HT2 receptors. These receptors are found in great abundance in that part of the brain known as the locus coeruleus. It is believed that the locus coeruleus functions as a novelty-detector since it receives and conveys a huge amount of sensory data.

According to hallucinogen expert G.K.Aghajanian of Yale University School of Medicine, psychedelics might work by enhancing sensory responsitivity to locus coeruleus neurons. In other words, under the influence of psychedelics upon clusters of 5-HT2 neurons in the locus coeruleus, a person becomes flooded by an intense rush of information that is not normally accessible, or not normally perceivable. If this is so, then Aldous Huxley's prescient conjecture outlined in his cult classic The Doors of Perception may be correct. Huxley argued that psychedelics allowed one access to information not normally available to us but which was latent about and within us. Furthermore, Huxley argued that this new information had cultural and spiritual importance.

Alternatively, such psychedelic effects may be no more than an aberration. Indeed, in the 50's and 60's, psychedelics were named `psychotomimetics' by some scientists in order to highlight the similarity between drug-induced hallucinosis and forms of madness like schizophrenia. Whilst the debate on this issue continues, we can end with a comment by Strassman on the value of researching the psychedelic experience so as to aid our understanding of human consciousness. With regard to the mystical claims made by, say, native peoples who use psychedelics, he says:

"Scientists ought to take all claims about the mind seriously. The DMT and psilocybin states....are basically non-material. They are not dependent upon the body moving through space, or interaction with other material objects. Thus, they are windows into consciousness, which, while it may have structural underpinnings, is essentially a movement of energy, rather than of matter. So, at the very least, any claims by non-Western people {e.g. Amazonian shamans} about consciousness might prove very valuable....for speculation about how the mind works. In addition, these `non-literate' cultures are how we found out about DMT and psilocybin in the first place."

(Article and interviews by SGP)

Links to relevant Net sites as follows: