On Saturday at exactly 3pm, hundreds of people will converge on Parliament Square in London, inhale nitrous oxide, or “laughing gas”, collectively giggle for 30 seconds, and then disperse. The Psychedelic Society insists “this is not a party” but a serious act of political dissent. “We’ll all inhale together in a sea of coloured rubber to send the message: My mind, my choice.”
The “mass inhalation” is in protest against the proposed psychoactive substances bill, which would make possession or supply of any “psychoactive substance” (with the exceptions of nicotine, alcohol and caffeine) punishable by up to seven years in prison. The aim is to crack down on legal highs, which chemists constantly concoct when old favourites are banned. No more “meow meow”, “spice”, “vanilla sky” or other new chemical substances. The catch-all legislation would also remove well-established legal highs such as nitrous oxide.
The Psychedelic Society believes it should be legal to consume any drug, as a human right. “These are our bodies, our minds, and it should be up to us what we do with them.” This applies to magic mushrooms, MDMA and, yes, even heroin.
The society has singled out nitrous oxide – cheap, easy to acquire, and spectacularly camera-friendly – for the action, which is based on historical precedents. Collective cannabis smoke-a-thons, featuring drumming, juggling and all the chilled-out tropes of stoner culture, did succeed in finessing public perception of marijuana. Speakeasy bars similarly proved the futility of prohibition.
Whether the balloon protest will similarly change public opinion remains to be seen. But there are reasons to think it won’t.
There is no single drug that looks less sophisticated than nitrous oxide. Smoking cigarettes will always look cool. Snorting lines carries an air of affluence. But huffing a bright pink balloon, turning cross-eyed, giggling and hyperventilating invariably looks inane. If the aim is to convince conservative prohibitionists that nitrous oxide is a legitimate leisure activity, this will not succeed.
However, the stance of the Psychedelic Society – that the bill is frivolous, and nitrous oxide nowhere near as dangerous as current news reports attest – is defensible. But for different reasons.
To call N2O laughing gas overlooks the true importance of this molecule – as a painkiller. And not just any painkiller, but one whose birth led to the development of anaesthesia, one of the greatest accomplishments of modern medicine. We have Sir Humphry Davy, founder of the Royal Society, to thank for this. His love affair with the gas in 1800 led to the popularisation of the drug and eventually to its use by others for tooth extraction and the development of pain-free surgery. Nitrous oxide has an illustrious history.
All drugs are double-edged swords, and can harm or heal depending how and when they are used. The main mistake of prohibition was to claim that some drugs were good and some bad. All drugs are both.
Has prohibition ever worked? No. Will the war on drugs ever end? No. Will humans always crave intoxicants? Yes. Is the psychoactive substances bill frivolous? Yes.
But is the best way to draw attention to a silly piece of legislation a silly protest that could be seen as equally silly?
Perhaps those who join in the mass inhalation should instead spend their energies devising ways to enjoy nitrous oxide without leaving horrendous amounts of waste behind (neither the balloons nor the steel canisters are easily recycled).
Campaigners might also do better if they worked on ways to establish legal consumption of nitrous purely for pleasure.
Again, there are historical precedents. Is there a legitimate place for inebriation? Yes. It’s called a bar. Alcohol is, in too many ways to count, far more dangerous than nitrous oxide.
What if nitrous oxide could be enjoyed in a regulated, taxed, and socially acceptable place? Like an up-tempo breed of cannabis cafe? It would mark the first occasion that a chemical borrowed from the world of medicine became a legal, communal, publicly available form of stress relief. A historic first.
It’s the holy grail for scientists working in sexual health: a device that women can use discreetly to protect themselves from contracting HIV.
Worldwide, only five percent of men wear condoms routinely. Convincing men to wear them can be difficult to say the least, especially in regions where rape is at epidemic levels. Dumping millions of condoms onto developing countries every year has not changed the fact that one in five people in some parts of Sub-Saharan Africa have HIV.
The International Partnership on Microbicides (IPM) hopes that the “Dapivirine Ring” could be the solution we have been waiting for. A non-profit, the IPM has managed to secure funding from a broad range of philanthropic and national organisations, because the need for a female-controlled form of HIV protection is so desperately needed.
“We’re hoping that, for the first time, an anti-HIV ring will help women be able to protect themselves against infection,” said Zeda Rosenberg, chief executive officer of IPM.
The Dapivirine ring is a porous silicone hoop designed for women to wear around their cervix. It is soaked in an anti-retroviral drug capable of killing the HIV virus, which is slowly released over time; women will need to change the ring monthly. Because they carry it with them day-in-day-out, even if condoms aren’t to hand, women will be able to know they are protected—especially important as women are twice as likely to be infected with HIV through sex with a man than vice versa.
The Dapivirine ring is currently being tested in Africa in Phase III clinical trials, involving thousands of women. More than 5,000 women worldwide have tested the ring so far. These foot soldiers on the frontlines of the war on HIV are taking the brave step of road-testing an experimental device, knowing there’s a chance they could still contract the virus (they are also given male condoms). Will it work? Preliminary results are expected in 2016, and it could be available in target countries in Africa and the tropics by 2018.
The Dapivirine ring is just one of many microbicide rings being developed worldwide in the race to create a discreet barrier protecting women against HIV infection. Virginia-based CONRAD—which has been in the field refining protection for women for two decades—is developing another front-runner.
This is not the first time that “female-controlled” microbicides have been hailed as poised to change the world. Last time, it was a catastrophic disappointment. In 2004, scientists believed we would have microbial gels on the market by 2010; more than 60different kinds were being tested, in the form of gels, sponges, creams, suppositories, and rings. But clinical trials revealed that not only were many ineffective, some actually worsened HIV infection rates: cellulose sulphate vaginal gels, for example, were slightly caustic to the vaginal tissue and increased the risk of tiny tears that make infection more likely.
“The failure of the gels in the 2000s was very disheartening,” said Rosenberg. But the need for an effective microbicide is so urgent, IPM, CONRAD and other organisations felt abandoning the goal would be unconscionable. Rosenberg has been working in the field since the 90s and remembers the hype, the hope and the disappointment of microbial gels very well.
Considering that it might be impossible to create an HIV vaccine, IPM—which has been working for 11 years on this concept—thinks their antiretroviral (ARV) drug-soaked rings could be the horse to bet on in the battle to halt the pandemic. The rings are intended only for release in the developing world, because that is where they are most needed—essentially flipping the traditional R&D model on its head by creating something explicitly for the developing world first, rather than rich countries.
Crucially, their work has been funded by philanthropists, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has gifted them with grants of up to $130 million. Much like the development of the combined progesterone-estrogen pill, bankrolled in the 1920s by philanthropists and suffragettes Margaret Sanger and Katharine Dexter McCormick, who felt that the world needed a safe contraceptive women could control, microbicides have been fueled by political conviction.
“Despite the failures of microbicide gels, there’s still a lot of interest in rings because they are—in terms of contraception—relatively low dose, and the Nuvaring [a contraceptive ring already on the market] is pretty popular,” said Terri Walsh, director of research and evaluation with the California Family Health Council (CHFC) in Los Angeles. Eventually, the plan is to produce a ring that prevents both pregnancy and HIV infection. “The possibility of having a ring that contains a microbicide and a contraceptive, in the same device? Now that would very attractive.”
But just because an idea sounds amazing on paper doesn’t mean it will actually work in the sweaty, messy, real-life scenario of the bedroom. Take the female condom, which sexual health specialists have long championed as a “female-controlled” prophylactic that gives women the power to protect themselves even if an inconsiderate lover refuses to don a condom. Whether or not this is actually true remains unclear. Surely a man can refuse to penetrate a female condom just as easily as refuse to wear a male condom—or (in the case of rape) yank it out?
More importantly, the female condom routinely ranks just a 16 percent approval rating in clinical trials. As the husband in one LA couple told me when I was researching for a piece on new designs in condoms, “They are terrible and deserve their reputation.”
Will women find inserting the ring cumbersome or wearing it unpleasant?
“We didn’t have any trouble with our participants putting in the Dapivirine ring,” said Walsh of the CHFC, who conducts trials to test new forms of contraception (such as their large-scale condom “breakage and slippage” studies). Considering that Nuvaring is already on the market with fair success, it’s reasonable to assume that HIV-preventing rings should be equally unobtrusive.
How’s the study going? “Everyone is holding their breath,” said Rosenberg. “And at the end of the day, we have to remember that these viruses mutate and adapt quickly, so we will still need to keep on our toes and simply not assume that everything has been solved when one product comes out.”
In other words: even if the Dapivirine ring proves successful, it won’t be the last weapon we will need in the fight to protect people—and women in particular—from HIV.
“Just as we have a variety of birth control options that women can use at their discretion—pills, rings, IUDs, diaphragms, injectables, implants etc—we need to keep in mind that women also need a variety of options when it comes to HIV prevention, because we all have different needs,” said Annette Larkin of CONRAD, which hopes to have its microbicide rings in women’s hands (or, rather, around their cervixes) in the next three years. “Currently, there are no HIV prevention methods that women can use on-demand and at their discretion. Why would we NOT do this research is the question.”
For the first time in four decades, an illegal psychedelic drug is being clinically tested in Canada. A team of psychiatrists and psychologists in Vancouver are giving 3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine (MDMA)—better known as the party drug ecstasy—to 12 people suffering from chronic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The drug will be administered in therapeutic sessions to help them deal with memories they have found difficult or impossible to confront, as part of a group of clinical trials, including in the U.S. and Israel.
The aim is to see if the club drug will help people with debilitating symptoms—including re-experiencing trauma through flashbacks or nightmares, as well as sky-high stress levels—who have not responded to conventional remedies. More typical treatments for PTSD include daily medications, cognitive behavioural therapy, traditional “talking” treatments and exposure therapies. Despite the range of options, at least a quarter of people coping with PTSD do not respond to any of them.
MDMA has already been studied for treatment-resistant PTSD in Switzerland, Israel and the U.S., and, although the studies are very small, the preliminary results sometimes seem too good to be true. A 2011 paper—the first randomized, controlled study—reported that 83 per cent of patients given MDMA-assisted psychotherapy experienced a significant reduction in their symptoms, compared to just 25 per cent given standard psychotherapy. It’s crucial that the MDMA dosing occurs in conjunction with focused psychotherapy. The current trials consist of a number of sober sessions to establish a trusting relationship with the therapist, followed by three therapy sessions when the patient is also given a set dose of MDMA.
It took six years and $200,000 to get approval from Health Canada, which even required building a bomb-proof room with multiple locks, motion sensors and a locked cabinet bolted to the floor to store a tablespoon of medical-grade MDMA. “Yes, it’s been difficult—but, at the end of the day, they said yes, and I do want to applaud them for saying yes,” says Mark Haden, adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia’s school of population and public health, and chairman of the Canadian branch of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), which is running the study. Haden has devoted much of his recent professional life to advocating for research into the benefits of illegal drugs, such as cannabis for pain and psilocybin (magic mushrooms) for end-of-life anxiety in terminally ill patients. Now the study will help to determine if MDMA could be a treatment for trauma.
The widespread public perception is that MDMA is dangerous and can cause brain damage, or worse. That weekend party warriors have collapsed on the dance floor after popping ecstasy is without question. However, it’s not clear that MDMA is always to blame. A spate of deaths in recent years in Britain were initially attributed to MDMA, but were later found to be due to another drug, PMA, a cheaper synthetic amphetamine known as “Dr. Death” that had been passed off by dealers as the real thing. “PMA is five to 10 times more dangerous than MDMA,” says Dr. David Nutt, a psychiatrist and neuropharmacologist at Imperial College in London.
But one crucial question remains unanswered: What is the effect of quality-controlled MDMA on the body?
Nutt inflamed British media in 2009 when he publicly stated that taking MDMA is less dangerous than horse riding—showing statistically how the sport is far more likely to cause injury than taking MDMA—and the furor led to his dismissal as the chair of the government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. Six years later, he says evidence continues to demonstrate that the risks of MDMA have been greatly exaggerated—and the benefits under-reported. “I’m not interested in helping people get high; my goal is to get MDMA approved as a treatment for PTSD in the U.K., because there is nothing that works the way this drug can. And it certainly isn’t as dangerous as legal drugs, such as alcohol and tobacco.”
Mark Haden is not unfamiliar with the dangers of drugs: He has worked for three decades as a drug counsellor with addicts in Vancouver. Nor is he unfamiliar with the hazards of MDMA: His brother died in 2008 while cooking a batch of the drug for sale on the black market.
Haden first became interested in the potential for illegal narcotics—and psychedelics, in particular—as possible treatments six years ago when a patient of his, addicted to heroin for a decade, felt transformed by an experience in Mexico with the hallucinogenic substance called ibogaine, which helped him kick heroin. Haden had never seen such a speedy recovery from addiction.
When Haden found it difficult to have a conversation with professional colleagues about the potential benefits of illegal or banned drugs to help addicts, he left his job as a counsellor to work as head of MAPS Canada. “Frankly, I’d like to apologize for the past lies of drugs educators—including myself,” says Haden. “We exaggerated the harms of drugs, we never discussed the potential benefits, and we failed to deal with the dominant model for dealing with addiction, which is prohibition, which just doesn’t work,” he adds.
Furthermore, given the enormous overlap between PTSD and addiction—how many people become addicted to drugs in response to trauma in their lives and how few treatments are available for both afﬂictions—MDMA (long medically championed by MAPS in the U.S., which instigated the Vancouver study before Haden’s involvement) was an obvious drug to investigate.
PTSD (once largely associated with war veterans) is a complex manifestation of trauma stored in the body. Victims of war, rape, childhood sexual abuse and other devastating experiences can find themselves continuing to shake, sweat and crumble with anxiety and flashbacks, decades after the initial trauma. Perhaps more than any other condition, PTSD demonstrates the intimate relationship between mind and body: Psychological scars can have physical repercussions.
Virgil Huston is an American vet who served in Iraq in 2004 and 2005, and was a contractor in Afghanistan in 2011. During his time overseas, Huston saw people killed, flew in planes that were shot at, and his Iraqi base was attacked daily. Back in the U.S., he suffered from depression, nightmares and haunting visions. “I tried every single antidepressant there is; none of them worked,” he says. “They just numbed me, and they were so much more addictive than I ever imagined. The withdrawal was horrible. And I wasn’t even given simple talking therapy. Psychiatry in America has become nothing but about altering chemical balances in the brain with daily medications.”
Although using a drug that is, in many respects, far more potent than any he had been prescribed (including Klonopin and Wellbutrin) to alter chemical balances in the brain might seem like the last thing he would want, Huston signed up for an MDMA PTSD trial after seeing discussions on Facebook. “I was stunned that MAPS was operating in Charleston, S.C. I thought it would be in California or Colorado—not here, where even marijuana will never be legal,” he laughs.
“I was definitely high, but totally in control—which is a good thing,” he says now, adding that he went through more therapy sessions without MDMA than with it. “This isn’t just about the drug; it’s about the psychological process, and building trust with a wonderful therapist,” he says. “I still think about the wars, but they don’t keep me awake at night all the time—which is, frankly, incredible.”
Haden thinks the key to MDMA’s potential to heal traumatic stress may lie in its molecular makeup. “It is a marriage between methamphetamine and mescaline,” he explains. “The stimulant gives people confidence, and the psychedelic allows people to reflect on themselves and their experiences in a different way. The combination helps them confront painful memories.”
Haden, Nutt and other proponents of MDMA-assisted therapy know they face an uphill battle in convincing colleagues of the efficacy of the drug. Most therapists and doctors who work with patients suffering from PTSD will have reservations about MDMA until large trials are successfully concluded.
Psychiatrist David Wright of the Homewood Health Centre in Guelph, Ont.—one of the few facilities providing live-in care for PTSD patients in Canada—is cautious to endorse the use of any inebriant. As of now, Homewood does not approve of marijuana—even for those with a licence. “A third of the patients here are trying to recover from addiction; it’s not fair to expose them to their triggers,” he says. “But if this is truly capable of enhancing people’s capacity to learn, then I would approve of it. I will be driven by the science.”
What Wright finds far more useful than talk of silver-bullet cures—which have been trotted out before, from propranolol to lobotomy—is routine, security, and focused psychotherapy. “People who come here usually just need to be stabilized, more than anything else. It’s not useful to think about cures only in terms of how few sessions are needed,” says Wright.
He does agree with some of what MDMA’s proponents suggest, however. “Basic antidepressants just don’t have a robust response,” he says. And he agrees that the biggest hurdle is “building trust.”
Which is why Norwegian psychologist Pål-Ørjan Johansen thinks MDMA could be so effective. In a 2009 scientific article, he argued that MDMA might work through several mechanisms—mainly by increasing levels of oxytocin, colloquially known as the “cuddle chemical” also released during breastfeeding. This would have the net effect of preventing the amygdala (thought of as the brain’s emotional processing centre, key for regulating fear) from overpowering the prefrontal cortex (considered the centre of higher thought). He thinks the overall effect is a fostering of the capacity for trust, while at the same time quelling hyperactive fear.
Johansen has experienced the effects of MDMA. A decade ago, he was so persuaded by what he read about MDMA therapy that he decided to treat his own depression and excessive drinking following the sudden deaths of his brother and several relatives. MDMA-assisted psychotherapeutic trials were not available where he lived, he says, so Johansen acquired the drug himself and asked a close friend trained in psychology to help him. “MDMA made it easier for me to be open, and talk about difficult and shameful experiences in my life,” he says.
“The reason pharmaceutical companies are not interested in exploring the benefits of these drugs has more to do with money—because the patents have expired—than anything else,” Johansen adds. Which is one reason he and his wife and academic partner, Teri Krebs, founded EmmaSofia, which aims to produce affordable, medical-grade MDMA and other psychedelics. Having partnered with a Norwegian pharmaceutical firm, they hope to “democratize” legitimate access to these drugs. Their unorthodox approach has garnered attention and criticism.
One big hurdle researchers face when it comes to MDMA research is cost: A gram of medical-grade MDMA can cost thousands of dollars. Haden says MAPS Canada is spending $170 per gram, which is the equivalent of $75 for an average dose. (Three doses are given during the trial.) MAPS is working through traditional regulatory channels and, if the trials prove the drug effective, it hopes to get MDMA approved as a treatment for PTSD by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and by Health Canada by 2021.
For now, Homewood’s Wright says although PTSD can be difficult to treat, recovery with existing methods is possible: He has seen countless people recover with compassionate, focused psychotherapy—so much so, that the terminology used to describe his patients has shifted from “PTSD victims” to “PTSD survivors.”
“It’s not all negative; sometimes people can respond to trauma by deciding to then change the world for the better,” Wright says. “PTSD shows how the body can be fragile—but also how can it can recover.”
It was decreed “the worst idea on the mind” in history in a public debate at the Royal Institution in 2006. Yet it seemed like such a good idea at the time—so good, it won its devisor the Nobel Prize. Portuguese neurosurgeon Dr Egas Moniz—whose gout-scoured face one graced the 10,000 Escudo banknote—won the most prestigious award in science in 1949 for developing the “leucotomy”.
Better known as “lobotomy” (a new label conjured up by American psychiatrists), the revolutionary technique seemed to be the first way psychiatrists could dramatically alleviate madness and suffering in people thought to be incurably deranged, violent, and psychotic. Extreme but—in its way—effective, the technique involved slicing tiny slivers through the frontal lobes of the brain, which surgeons reached through holes bored in the top of the skull.
Grim it may sound, but before antipsychotics, sedatives, and all the other ingredients in our pharmaceutical repertoire, psychiatrists had few options to treat any form of severe mental illness. Moniz theorized that obsessive, depressive, and delusional behaviours were caused by excessively tight associations between neural circuits, which could be alleviated by slicing through the deep white matter of the frontal cortex, “soft as warm butter”.
Today, the word “lobotomy” is synonymous with “butchery”—a form of neurological oppression used to sedate and immobilize the sick and troublesome. An extreme form of punishment, made famous by the surgical fate of Randle P McMurphy in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.
The truth, as always, is more complex. Lobotomy was widely thought of (if only for a few years) as truly revolutionary. In a 1937 story, New York Times reporter William Laurence lauded it as a “surgery for the soul”. Some 40,000 Americans underwent the procedure, peaking at 5,000 annually in 1949. So popular, hundreds of people volunteered to have surgical tools inserted into their brains twice—and a handful, three times.
“Most people don’t know about this chapter in our history because it’s ugly, and truthfully, psychiatrists have an interest in hoping that people don’t know too much about it,” said Jack El-Hai, author of The Lobotomist, a biography of Walter Freeman, who performed 3,500 lobotomies and spurned other medics across the globe to embrace the procedure.
Freeman outlined the “prefrontal lobotomy” in full detail in a 1942 paper in the Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine. The Nobel Prize winner’s biggest fan, Freeman sought to rebrand and reinvent the surgery by coming up with a way to enter the brain from below, rather than drilling in through the top. Why bother with an expensive, intrusive and dangerous hospital procedure, requiring heavy anesthetics and a long hospital recovery, when a different tactic could achieve the same result in less than ten minutes?
Hoping for a safer, gentler option, Freeman came up with a radical alternative: driving a surgical tool into the brain by hammering it through the bony case of the eye just above the eyeball, just under the eyelid. His instrument of choice: an ice pick, plucked from the family’s kitchen drawers. Instead of general or local anesthetic, Freeman opted to immobilize his patients with electroshock therapy.
Freeman took pride in the fact many patients could walk out of his office within hours of a treatment (albeit with bruised eyes). In the end, roughly a third of the lobotomies performed in the US were achieved through the eye socket, not the skull.
In Freeman’s mind, the root of a broad spectrum of mental ailments—from depression to schizophrenia and the symptoms we would today categorize as autism—lay in the same culprit: an excessive number of connections between the thalamus (an integral component of the brain’s emotional hubs), and the frontal cortex (thought of as the seat of consciousness and self-awareness). Animalistic, emotional urges overwhelmed reason and rationality. Slicing through those excessive connections with an ice pick with the same motion as beating an egg could relieve the oppression of emotion over reason, alleviating anxiety and misery.
Freeman became increasingly evangelical about his procedure, travelling across America to perform up to 25 treatments in a day at the nation’s overcrowded mental institutions (often ungloved). He transitioned from thinking of the therapy as a last resort to advertising it as an early intervention, enthusiastically doling it out for post-partum depression, sadness in the terminally ill, and even 19 children under the age of 18, including one four year old.
One of these children was Howard Dully, whose stepmother paid Freeman $200 to lobotomize the 12-year-old boy in 1960 for his strange behaviour, which spanned from daydreaming to a reluctance to go to bed.
“I’ve always felt different—wondered if something was missing from my soul,” Dully, who has no memory of the surgery, told NPR.
“I went into the project thinking he was probably a monster, but what changed my mind was seeing all the correspondences he had with his patients,” says Freeman’s biographer El-Hai. “He stored boxes and boxes of letters from them and their families, thanking him for his help, inviting him over for dinner. Some of his patients and their families really thought of him as family. It seemed something much deeper was going on.”
On one infamous occasion at the Langley Porter Psychiatric Institute in San Francisco, he poured out a box of more than 500 cards his lobotomy patients had sent him.
Freeman spent much of the last 20 years of his life travelling across America in an old green Ford, visiting former patients and documenting their histories—progress, deteriorations, deaths and all.
On a professional level, Freeman maintained correspondence because he was keen to prove that he had produced real and lasting improvements. That he hadn’t butchered the vulnerable and the sick, but actually changed their lives for the better, allowing many to go home, return to work, and live relatively normal lives. Though most lobotomy patients—two thirds by most accounts—remained institutionalized, roughly 30 per cent could be deinstitutionalised, according to El-Hai’s book. Freeman loved to showcase the handful of extraordinary patients who returned to sparkling careers, including a psychiatrist, a symphony violinist, and a physician who not only could practice again, but also received his license to pilot aircraft.
Freeman took a particular interest in the sex lives of his patients. One notable man, who had expressed no interest in intercourse for two decades, developed such an appetite that he complained “the girls cost him more money than he could afford”. In a more traditionally American manner, Freeman noted that 28 patients married after surgery (a small number of 2,454 treatments, granted), and 62 children were born.
Far from an arrogant butcher drunk on hubris, Freeman truly felt he was doing what was best for his patients, performing lobotomies for just $25 for those in the most desperate and impoverished circumstances. In his mind, the procedure was a social good: he thought a quick slice through the brain—even if it diminished intellect or cauterized some portion of a patient’s personality—was far better to a miserable life incarcerated in the nation’s overcrowded mental asylums. Before WWII, more than 400,000 people lived in 477 asylums—and half the country’s beds were occupied by psychiatric patients.
“I don’t blame Freeman for exploring the potential of lobotomy as a solution to the mental asylum issue in the US, but I do blame him for refusing to explore pharmaceutical treatments when they became available in the 1950s and 1960s,” said El-Hai.
As lobotomy faded in popularity, Freeman continued to preach the virtues of the treatment, clinging to it right to the end. It was only when a patient seeking her third lobotomy, Helen Mortensen, died on the operating table in 1967, that he was stripped of his medical license.
Good intentions aside, and despite the small number of dramatic improvements, thousands suffered acutely, ranging from paralysis to intellectual ablation and early deaths. Ten years ago a small number of the relatives of these victims—mostly, their children—began a campaign to have the Nobel Prize withdrawn. But their efforts were meager and shortlived.
For good or ill, the brief love affair with the lobotomy did leave us with a few legacies. One is the refinement of standardized ethical guidelines, which were threadbare during Freeman’s time. Another is how the lobotomists of the world drew attention to the biology of the brain itself as the seat of mental illness.
Perhaps most striking though: an unintentional illustration of the remarkable resilience and the plasticity of the brain: what today we call neuroplasticity. That the human brain can survive the swirling of an icepick through its very core and still have a chance of retaining the capacity for mathematics, language, emotions, and creativity is perhaps the most remarkable legacy of all.
As we continue to understand how music affects the brain, the more we appreciate that we are “hardwired” for music. We are built to create it.
No group is more instructive in this regard than humans in their primacy: babies. Scientific studies of infants and music, where entire laboratories-cum-nurseries are devoted to their scrutiny, have taught us that babies are instinctively musical.
Indeed, we hardly need science to tell us that babies dig good tunes, for parents in all cultures speak to their tots in the same manner, using a lilting, melodic, repetitive, musical prosody, dubbed “motherese.” Babies will always attune more to words spoken to them in a melodic manner than flat spoken language.
The ABC song helps toddlers learn and remember the alphabet because they are hardwired for music. They will invariably pay more attention to musical sounds than disordered notes. Countless viral sensation YouTube videos of screaming babies suddenly soothed by reggae, hip-hop, and even techno are testament to this.
How do scientists study what kind of music non-verbal babies like? The same way mothers do: by observing their behavior and responding to it. Scientists have meticulously cataloged what music babies express an interest in or ignore, and the kinds of emotional reactions they have to the notes tooted at them by recording if they turn towards or away from a speaker. In one early paper on the reactions of babies to music, Harvard biologists determined that “fretting and turning away from the music source occurred more frequently during the dissonant than the consonant versions.” Conclusion: babies prefer consonant (sweet sounding) noises to dissonant (sour ones).
Research on babies also revealed something few anticipated: each and every one of us is born with perfect pitch. This is because the baby brain is hyperconnected — there are thousands more connections between the neurons in the brain of an infant than in the brain of an adult. It seems all babies live in a synesthetic haze, where every smell is tinged with color, sound is infused with color, every smell colored with sound — a hallucinogenic explosion where all senses blend with one another in a carnivalesque whirlwind of experience. No wonder babies perpetually look simultaneously exhilarated, overwhelmed and exhausted.
As fun as this sounds, the party can’t last forever. As babies grow, these connections need to be pruned so the brain can do more with less. It needs to become more efficient so it can economically learn to make sense of the world and respond in a capable manner.
We lose this as we age — unless given the right stimulation. Children who grow up speaking tonal languages, such as Mandarin, where words spoken at different pitches have different meanings, are more likely to retain perfect pitch. Use it, less likely to lose it.
Intriguingly, many professional musicians with perfect pitch owe their talent to synesthesia: They have retained some of the neural connections between brain regions the rest of us have lost. For them, B flat may taste like banana, or look like tinged terracotta — its distinctive color or flavor is unmistakable. Piano tuners frequently possess this gift, making their seemingly difficult craft effortless.
Though the rest of us lose this synesthetic, exquisitely tuned ear, as adults our brains are far more primed for music than we might realize. Our capacity to remember tunes, and recognize songs even from a split second of a recording, is extraordinary.
Pick some of your favorite tunes sometime, and see if your friends can recognize the track from a single note. It’s fun. I recommend the cymbal crash at the start of Radiohead’s “High and Dry,”► the first piano note at the start of “Fairytale of New York”► by the Pogues (or the harmonica at the start of “Dirty Old Town”► for that matter), and the guitar strum which opens “Devil’s Haircut”► by Beck. Familiar audiences nail them, every time. The Radiohead cymbal crash is particularly impressive: it derives from a standard drum kit, and yet the combination of that crash in that studio on that recording refined with that production has been so hardwired into our melodic memories crowds recognize it instantly.
Our brains are hardwired to remember melodies, and we have used this to our advantage for thousands of years. We remember words set to music far easier than straight spoken prose. Nursery rhymes are melodic because children find them easier to remember. Epic ballads, sung and not spoken, were passed down for thousands of years without written inscription. People who work with the elderly and have witnessed the ravages of Alzheimer’s will attest that often music is the last thing to go. Even when names, identities and memories are forgotten, the songs of our youth remain.
Though many of us may doubt our ability to keep a beat, even the least coordinated of us are primed for percussion: the capacity of our brains to perceive a beat and maintain a steady rhythm is considered by some scientists to be a unique quality of the human mind. Students of physics, take note: Galileo recorded the speed of gravity by employing music. He felt the clockwork mechanics of Renaissance Italy were insufficient for his purposes: so as he dropped objects and measured the speed of their descent, he sang to himself to measure time. His calculations… they weren’t half bad.
In the running battle between the nervous systems of animals and the chemical production factories of plants, animals have learned to convert aversions into affections. Reports of wildlife consuming psychotropic, hallucinogenic, stimulating, or sedating plants for purposes that seem designed for pleasure alone are rife in the scientific literature.
Botanists and zoologists have extensively documented animals deliberately intoxicating themselves. Ducklings too busy feeding on narcotic plants to respond to their mother’s calls. Hawkmoths gorging on the nectar of Datura flowers. Pumas gnawing at the bark of the Cinchona tree are especially noteworthy because of indigenous populations in Peru who noticed the behavior mimicked their own. Centuries later, quinine was isolated from the bark in 1820 and deployed in the battle with the parasitic plasmodium viruses responsible for malaria.
Housecats are notorious fiends for the plant Nepeta cataria, also known as catnip. Interestingly, wild tomcats are less fond ofthe herb, and pumas, lions, and other wild species belonging to thegroup of animals known as Felis (cats) are positively averse to it. Acaptive tiger once “leaped several feet into the air, urinated, and ran head-first into the wall of his cage upon simply sniffing the leaves.”
The tales are endless. Wild bighorn sheep scamper along treacherous mountain ledges in pursuit of psychotropic lichen. Reindeer are drawn like clockwork to Amanita muscaria—also known as fly agaric mushrooms, or red toadstools—seasonally gorging on the fungi and wandering erratically from their migratory paths.
Their ardent attraction to the metabolites of the white-spotted fungus is so strong they will smother themselves in urine left by the people of the Arctic circle who have themselves snacked on fly agarics–even willing to do battle over access to the urine-stained snow. And of course there is the Sclerocarya birrea tree, known more popularly by the butterscotchy liqueur Amarula created from it. The fermented fruit draws African land mammals—most famously elephants (hence the bottle’s label)—to it in aggressive, rowdy hordes.
Animals in the wild habitually consume intoxicating, hallucinogenic, and sedating chemicals. But it is at the intersection between animals, humans, and our own drugs that the story starts to become more interesting. And more questionable.
Take the popular alkaloid nicotine (alkaloids being a broad class of chemicals that includes cocaine, caffeine, morphine, and many other of our favorite drugs). The product of the leaves of N. tobaccum is lethal, as noted, to almost all animals. Except primates. The tiniest doses of the chemical will kill insects, frogs and birds. Yet monkeys and apes are somehow impervious to nicotine’s lethal properties.
You’ve probably seen old film footage from the 1920s of circus chimps smoking cigars (perhaps while roller skating).
Chimps have not only been coaxed into smoking—they have become genuinely addicted. Zookeepers worldwide have struggled to get captive animals to kick the habit, most famously Charlie of the Mangaung Zoo, in Bloemfontein, South Africa, who first became hooked when visitors tossed him lit cigarettes.
Enticing captive apes to smoke is an old and clichéd trick. Chimpanzees have been put on show smoking for centuries. The first recorded instance in Europe took place in The Hague in 1635. It was around this time that the dosing of animals took on a scientific, systematic dimension as medical doctors, chemists, and other enterprising experimentalists of the burgeoning scientific disciplines began to immerse, inject, feed and cloak animals in a variety of psychoactive chemicals, from alcohol to ether, morphine to mescaline.
For better or for worse, the use of animals to investigate the properties of drugs resulted in a number of medical milestones. The first needle (which eventually evolved into the heroin-friendly hypodermic form) was produced by Sir Christopher Wren (1632–1723), who paired goose quills with animal bladders to inject dogs with opium in 1656. Another breakthrough came with the French medic Pierre-Alexandre Charvet (1799–1879), who in 1826 published Action comparée de l’opium et de ses principesconstituans sur l’économie animale, a detailed account of his work administering opium to animals, including paramecia, crayfish, snails, fish, salamanders, frogs, birds, rabbits, dogs, cats—and himself. This is regarded by many as the first book in the field we now know as “experimental pharmacology.”
LSD has frequently been given to animals. Guppies dosed with acid swim into the walls of their tanks. Siamese fighting fish display their fighting stance to unoccupied water. Worms work their way upwards through soil. Snails fall from the sides of trees.
Perhaps the most famous experiments on animals with LSD involved spiders, who were dosed with a variety of narcotics in experiments funded by space agency NASA.
Why arachnids? In addition to being cheap and easily sourced, the influence of a drug on the arrangement of a spider’s web seemed to provide a rough indicator of a chemical’s toxicity.
The geometric array is illuminating: Webs made on caffeine are erratic and nonfunctional. Chloral hydrate, also known as the sleeping aid Hydrate, produces a sparse arrangement of threads. Marijuana results in a fairly competent web, but it appears as if the spider abandoned its task halfway through. The LSD web resembles a normal one proportionally, but it is definitively broader. Make of this what you will.
Aside from sheer spectacle, what is the utility in experimenting on animals with drugs? Non-human models cannot make for a perfect replica of the brain of Homo sapiens, but according to many biologists, they serve as a decent proxy.
Psychiatrist Ronald Siegel of the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the University of California Los Angeles spent the better part of 30 years studying the impacts of narcotics on animals. He believed that understanding the biological basis of addiction would aid his treatment of patients suffering the ravages of chemical dependencies. Siegel worked daily as a clinician treating addicts: He saw with his own eyes how drugs destroy lives.
His aims were undoubtedly compassionate and his methods undeniably colorful. He trekked to the mountains of the Andes to understand the ancient use of the coca leaf. He darted a captive colony of chimpanzees off the coast of California with cocaine both at the low concentrations found in the leaf and with the high concentrations found on the street. Result: Coca leaf levels rendered the animals social and cheerful. Miami-style doses led to aggression and disrupted social dynamics. Odd as this may sound, it was not until Siegel’s experiments that cocaine was accepted by the scientific establishment and the general public as “addictive.” Until then, it was merely thought to be habit-forming.
His experiments with the hallucinogen N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) on rhesus monkeys are described with such striking detail that, rather than paraphrasing, they are best quoted verbatim:
Darkness, solitude and the silence of night are the most common times for humans to use hallucinogens. All primitive societies prefer these drugs under conditions when there is little else to see or hear in the environment… In dark and isolated settings, monkeys also find exploring visual stimuli exciting and rewarding. In a classic demonstration of this motivation to explore, rhesus monkeys were confined one at a time to a dimly lighted wire cage that was covered with an opaque box. Because monkeys need visual stimulation as much as we do, I was certain they would accept an enlightening hallucinogen rather than darkness. Initially, each monkey was given the opportunity to live alone in the dark chamber for ten consecutive days and nights. The smoking machine was filled with cigarettes made from ordinary garden lettuce … and the cigarettes were laced with DMT … by Day 8 [Claude] had worked up to smoking almost two whole cigarettes each day … Lucy has been smoking almost two DMT cigarettes each day. She has become extremely proficient at catching whatever she has been chasing: she now brings ‘it’ to her mouth, chews and lip-smacks with delight.
His conclusion: If deprived of light, stimulation, company and comfort, monkeys will smoke an overwhelmingly strong psychedelic. He says this has profound implications for our own species. “Under the right conditions [DMT] was as useful to a monkey as it is to a human. We share the same motivation to light up our lives with chemical glimpses of another world.” One is tempted to suggest that had Dr. Siegel ever tried hallucinogens himself (he maintains that he would never, never, take any of these substances), he wouldn’t have locked a monkey in a dark box to reach this deduction.
Among his peers, opinions are mixed.
“He’s not exactly very popular,” says Rick Doblin, Ph.D., founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), who has endeavored to demonstrate the potential to treat human ailments with psychotropic drugs since the 1970s. “He did tremendously important work, but not everyone is a fan of his methods.”
“I genuinely think of him as a hero,” says medical doctor George Koob, chairman of the Committee on the Neurobiology of Addictive Disorders at the Scripps Institute in California, who has spent his career trying to understand what predisposes some but not others toward addiction. “He really was the first person to chart the case histories of cocaine addiction when nobody thought of it as a ‘addictive drug.’”
Published as an extract in The Daily Beast to celebrate 4:20 – April 20th, the global day to mark the consumption of cannabis.
A handful of individual drug experiences are known to millions. Aldous Huxley’s mescaline dose, recorded in The Doors of Perception (1954), is one. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1797 opium visions, enshrined in his poem “Kubla Khan,” is another.
But one high is so famous it has a birthday: Bicycle Day, April 19, 1943. The world’s first acid trip.
You know the gist: Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann, tinkering in the labs of Sandoz Chemicals, accidentally absorbs LSD-25 through his fingers. Later sold as “Delysid” by Sandoz, it was one of many synthetic molecules created in Hofmann’s quest to prevent post-partum haemorrhaging. (The man who created the world’s best-loved hallucinogen was only trying to prevent the death of women in childbirth. And he succeeded in both respects.) Hours later, cycling home, the world shimmered.
Entirely inexperienced with recreational drugs, the Hofmann was befuddled, and decided on a “self-experiment” to delve further. On April 19, he slugged 250 micrograms at 4:20pm—surely one of history’s most trippy coincidences.
The world’s first trip was far from fun. “A demon had invaded me, taken possession of my body, mind and soul,” Hofmann wrote in his book. Though the after-glow was pleasant, Hofmann hated the initial jolt. “The last thing I could have expected was that this substance could ever find application as anything approaching a pleasure drug.” Instead, he hoped LSD “could be for psychiatry what the microscope is for biology and the telescope for astronomy.” A tool to probe the mind. A task, not a treat.
Much to Hofmann’s dismay, acid “spread with epidemic-like speed as a sensational inebriant.” His “wonder child” had become a “problem child.” LSD was everywhere, bringing with it a bad rep.
Lysergic acid was vilified: the three letters LSD became synonymous with psychosis, suicide, and brain damage. But did the scientific evidence match the public perception?
Mass media reports set the tone. Time magazine screamed America was suffering “An Epidemic of Acid Heads” in 1966, reporting that LSD casualties were “flocking” to UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute. Other publications parroted “15 percent of patients in psychiatric wards” were victims of acid-induced psychosis. Parents worried their child would become one of those jumping out of windows because they “thought they could fly.” Studies claimed LSD caused “chromosomal damage.” Isolated case reports suggested acid could lead to leukemia.
Psychedelic fears mushroomed from physical harms to social chaos. “Arty” types were especially at risk. Hallucinogens “possess a particular attraction for certain psychologically and socially maladjusted persons,” including “‘arty’ people such as struggling writers, painters, and musicians,” scowled a World Health Organisation bulletin.
If anything speaks to how dangerous LSD was considered to be, it is Operation Julie. The culmination of two and a half years investigation, on March 26, 1977, 120 people and 6.5 million doses of LSD were seized. Sold for £1 a hit, “microdots” were disseminated allegedly for philosophical and not financial purposes. “I considered LSD a valuable tool in helping people really see the transcendental beauty of our home,” wrote Leaf Fielding, one of those arrested and imprisoned, in his memoir To Live Outside The Law. “Trippers wouldn’t trash the planet.” Bless.
On one occasion, Fielding accidentally took a monumental amount after spilling thousands of crystals and trying to collect them by hand. “I went down on my knees and sank down into them, unable to move for over four million years,” he wrote.
It’s impossible to say how much acid he took, “but certainly thousands of trips,” he told me from his home in southern France. Did the experience irreparably alter him? “I was a bit wrecked for a week or so,” he laughed. “But no I wouldn’t say I suffered any sort of permanent change.” To be fair, from my perspective over the phone, he was perfectly lucid.
Statistically speaking, argued Fielding, if LSD has the capacity to cause permanent brain damage, far more people would have wound up in mental institutions.
Today we not only have hindsight (spoiler alert: hallucinogens did not lead to world peace), but large sets of data to analyze. So what do the numbers tell us?
Most initial fears were laid to rest. Does LSD damage DNA? A 1971 review in the journal Science debunked the evidence. Can LSD lead you to believe you can fly? Probably not—but without question lysergic inebriation can lead to idiotic injuries. Drugs counsellor Lisa Zimmerman from Ottawa, Canada, witnessed a girl nearly break her legs on a giant unicorn. Caveat: the unicorn was real, roaming the desert at Burning Man 2014 as an art car based on the feted net-toon “Charlie The Unicorn.”
“Our car ‘The Bleachers’ [sports stadium seating on a flat bed truck] nearly collided with the unicorn in the middle of the night—it was difficult for the drivers to navigate in the dark. Everyone in the front row pulled in their legs as Charlie came near,” recalled Zimmerman. “Except for one girl, who enthusiastically stuck her legs out and nearly had them crushed between two trucks. Because she was on acid and thought Charlie was made of pillows.”
Most people would probably not dispute that acid—just like alcohol and marijuana—can make people do stupid things. “People have died while on LSD—but you have to remember that people have used at least half a billion doses over the years, so of course it would happen,” said Teri Krebs of the Department of Neuroscience at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim.
“If anybody died falling out of a window while on LSD, the urban myth was that they were ‘trying to fly’,” says Pål-Ørjan Johansen, a clinical psychologist and research partner of Krebs. “The flying myth was pure speculation—today we know, that serious injuries associated with LSD are extremely rare.”
Krebs and Johansen are pushing to increase controlled access to psychedelics, and have started a fundraising campaign to create a reliable source for medical grade psilocybin.
The ultimate question, said Krebs and Johansen: Are people who take psychedelics overall more likely to develop psychosis, suicidal tendencies, or other forms of mental illness? The pair analysed surveys from the US National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH)—an annual sample of Americans—between 2008 and 2011, covering more than 135,000 people. Their study, published last month, found “no link” between having used psychedelics such as LSD and subsequent mental health problems. Another study in the same issue of the Journal of Psychopharmacology also found no increased risk of suicidality in those who had used psychedelics.
But do psychedelics never result in psychosis?
MD Dr Henry David Abraham began documenting cases of “hallucinogen persisting perception disorder”—incessant, long-term visual disturbances—in 1971. He wrote the criteria for “HPPD” for the Diagnostics and Statistics Manual (psychiatry’s bible). Some researchers dispute the validity of the condition, including Krebs and Johansen, who point to other studies that find symptoms of HPPD—termed “visual snow”—in people who have never used psychedelics. Abraham in turn points to other studiesthat found more than four percent of people who had used psychedelics experienced persistent visual symptoms.
But Krebs, Johansen and Abraham share some common ground. “Fundamentally I am on the side of everyone leading the sea-change to explore the positive aspects of these drugs after so many years of draconian suppression of legitimate research,” said Abraham, who is all for good studies investigating the potential medical benefits of illegal narcotics. But psychological ill-effects are not to be trivialised. “Many new researchers in the field are not being thoughtful about the side effect profiles,” he said. In other words: any drug—pharmaceutical or otherwise—can harm as well as heal.
“Though reports of ‘flashbacks’ and so on were greatly exaggerated in the 1960s, LSD is not without risks, particularly for people with a predisposition for psychosis,” said Amanda Feilding, director of the Beckley Foundation. She has spearheaded research into the medicinal benefits of controlled substances for decades, such as cannabis for pain, or LSD for anxiety in terminal stage cancer patients. “But it’s undeniable that LSD is a very powerful substance and unless it’s used in a responsible way it can disturb mental stability, especially if taken in unsuitable conditions. Such casualties can take a long time to recover,” she said.
Albert Hofmann, by the way, took LSD in minute doses until the age of 96 and lived to be 102.
“Albert was the most charming and possibly the happiest person I’ve ever met. Even at the age of 100, he had a twinkle in his eye—probably because he knew what a wonderful gift he had given to mankind,” said Feilding. “For a time he was filled with sorrow at his ‘wonder child’ becoming a ‘problem child’ through its misuse, but hopefully now we are entering a new era which will be more careful in the use of his elixir.”
Data from population surveys in the United States challenge public fears that psychedelic drugs such as LSD can lead to psychosis and other mental-health conditions and to increased risk of suicide, two studies have found.
In the first study, clinical psychologists Pål-Ørjan Johansen and Teri Suzanne Krebs, both at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, scoured data from the US National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), an annual random sample of the general population, and analysed answers from more than 135,000 people who took part in surveys from 2008 to 2011.
Of those, 14% described themselves as having used at any point in their lives any of the three ‘classic’ psychedelics: LSD, psilocybin (the active ingredient in so-called magic mushrooms) and mescaline (found in the peyote and San Pedro cacti). The researchers found that individuals in this group were not at increased risk of developing 11 indicators of mental-health problems such as schizophrenia, psychosis, depression, anxiety disorders and suicide attempts. Their paper appears in the March issue of the Journal of Psychopharmacology.
The findings are likely to raise eyebrows. Fears that psychedelics can lead to psychosis date to the 1960s, with widespread reports of “acid casualties” in the mainstream news. But Krebs says that because psychotic disorders are relatively prevalent, affecting about one in 50 people, correlations can often be mistaken for causations. “Psychedelics are psychologically intense, and many people will blame anything that happens for the rest of their lives on a psychedelic experience.”
The three substances Johansen and Krebs looked at all act through the brain’s serotonin 2A receptor. The authors did not include ketamine, PCP, MDMA, fly agaric mushrooms, DMT or other drugs that fall broadly into the category of hallucinogens, because they act on other receptors and have different modes of biochemical action. Ketamine and PCP, for example, act on the NMDA receptor and are both known to be addictive and to cause severe physical harms, such as damage to the bladder.
“Absolutely, people can become addicted to drugs like ketamine or PCP, and the effects can be very destructive. We restricted our study to the ‘classic psychedelics’ to clarify the findings,” says Johansen.
The ‘acid casualty’ myth
“This study assures us that there were not widespread ‘acid casualties’ in the 1960s,” says Charles Grob, a paediatric psychiatrist at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has long has advocated the therapeutic use of psychedelics, such as administering psilocybin to treat anxiety in terminal-stage cancer4. But he has concerns about Krebs and Johansen’s overall conclusions, he says, because individual cases of adverse effects use can and do occur.
For example, people may develop hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (HPPD), a ‘trip’ that never seems to end, involving incessant distortions in the visual field, shimmering lights and coloured dots. “I’ve seen a number of people with these symptoms following a psychedelic experience, and it can be a very serious condition,” says Grob.
Krebs and Johansen, however, point to studies that have found symptoms of HPPD in people who have never used psychedelics5.
The second of the new two studies, also published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, looked at 190,000 NSDUH respondents from 2008 to 2012. It also found that the classic psychedelics were not associated with adverse mental-health outcomes. In addition, it found that people who had used LSD and psilocybin had lower lifetime rates of suicidal thoughts and attempts.
“We are not claiming that no individuals have ever been harmed by psychedelics,” says author Matthew Johnson, an associate professor in the Behavioral Pharmacology Research Unit at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. “Anecdotes about acid casualties can be very powerful — but these instances are rare,” he says. At the population level, he says, the data suggest that the harms of psychedelics “have been overstated”.
A scientist has cracked a chemical conundrum, which has allowed him to develop new drugs that could wean people off alcohol, while allowing them to enjoy the feeling of being “tipsy”.
The first drug, which called “alcosynth”, is a drink that mimics alcohol. It a non-toxic inebriant that removes the risks of hangovers, liver toxicity, aggression and loss of control.
A benzodiazepine derivative, the substance is in the Valium family, but without being addictive or causing withdrawal symptoms, he claims.
The man behind this marvel is Professor David Nutt, who became famous as the drugs tsar fired by the British government in 2009 for proclaiming that horse-riding is more dangerous than ecstasy.
Now, the Imperial College neuropsychopharmacology professor is making waves with a new mission: saving us from the fatal effects of the most popular drug on earth, alcohol.
His second wonder drug is a so-called “chaperone”, which would attenuate the effects of alcohol.
Take a pill with booze, and it’s impossible to become drunk to the point of incapacitation.
The price point would be set quite high, to stop the drug from being abused, but this “sober up pill” could be popped on the way home, reducing drink-driving accidents, and other alcohol-related incidents and crime.
Both drugs would be available in high-end cocktail bars at first, claims Nutt. The alcohol substitute would be marketed as a companion to a regular tipple and relatively cheap to buy.
Twitter users responded to the prospect of avoiding hangovers by drinking alcosynth with enthusiasm.
Alcohol is one of the most harmful drugs, pound for pound, due to its impacts on obesity, violent crime, overall health, life expectancy, and economic productivity.
It ranks among the top five causes of death in all EU nations, and the Government cites it as the leading cause of premature death in men aged 16 to 54 in the UK. It shortens our lives in many ways: liver disease, a dozen forms of cancer, elevated blood pressure, strokes, heart attacks, increased risk of dementia, car crashes, domestic abuse and crime.
“If alcohol was treated as a toxic compound in the same manner as benzene or other lethal chemicals, the maximum amount you would be permitted to consume would be one wine glass a year,” says Nutt. “But it is exempt from toxic control measures because we like to drink.”
The overall cost of alcohol misuse is difficult to calculate because of alcohol’s ubiquity. Its combination with fatty food and sedentary activities make the mathematics tricky: estimates for the overall cost of alcohol to the British economy range from £21bn to £55bn per year.
The Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit has pegged the cost to the NHS of “binge Britain” at £3.5bn – higher than smoking at £3.3bn. Add on the £11bn for crime and £7.3bn in lost productivity from hangovers, absenteeism and poor performance and alcohol increasingly appears economically destructive.
Nutt has been working on synthesising his alcohol mitigation drugs for a decade. The effects of alcohol are devilishly hard to mimic because of its complex effect on the human body.
Ethyl alcohol (C2H6O) is unique in the universe of narcotics. Most drugs operate by hijacking one molecular receptor: tetrahydrocannabinol (THC, the active component in marijuana) impersonates our own endocannabinoids. Psilocybin (the chemical contained in magic mushrooms) mimics serotonin. Cocaine messes with the dopamine networks.
Alcohol uniquely masquerades as a number of neurotransmitters. Booze is the ultimate molecular maverick, which explains why so many of us are hooked. “Alcohol is a promiscuous drug,” says Nutt. It is also called the “dirty drug” because of its capacity to invade every cell in the body.
Nutt has applied for patents on 85 new chemical compounds in the alcosynth and chaperone families, which would be licensed to DrugsScience, and the Beckley Foundation, both independent organisations dedicated to research on drugs and drugs policy research.
Getting alcosynths and chaperones to market will not be easy. Licensing such drugs could take between three and five years, Nutt says – if they pass the UK’s stringent drugs laws at all. He has also courted controversy by working with a chemist, known as Dr Z, who was behind the creation of a mephedrone, also known as “miaow miaow”. That drug that was connected to a number of deaths in the UK last year and was subsequently banned.
“Some see him as the ‘new Shulgin’ [the chemist who gave us MDMA, 2-CB, 2-TI and 200 other psychoactive compounds],” says Dr Nutt. “Others see him as evil incarnate. He polarises people.”
The cost of human trials and legal bills for Nutt’s new chemicals will top £1m, he claims. He is hoping to secure a backer from the big pharma world. Danish pharmaceutical company Lundbeck recently launched Selincro, a drug that reduces the craving for alcohol, proving that there is market interest, he says.
The £1m figure doesn’t scrape the surface of the investment required to change our social and cultural relationship with alcohol. Not to mention our economic reliance on the industry, which generated £39bn for the UK, according to Nielson data.
Nutt believes that the savings to the NHS and the long-term health benefits to society should convince the Government to take him seriously. Alcohol companies should be intrigued by his new drugs, he claims, from a corporate social responsibility perspective. “The drinks industry should see this as a natural stage in the evolution of their products which will ultimately help them avoid expensive litigation costs,” he explains.
Carlo Gibbs, spokesman for the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, was dismissive of Nutt’s claims. “They will have a lot of problems with these compounds under EU law,” he says. “It’s not something our member companies would consider.”
Synthesising a new drug to replace alcohol may seem extreme. But Nutt points to the tobacco industry, where e-cigarettes were dismissed for years as a ridiculous notion.
Nutt says the Government must take drastic action to generate results, as all attempts to mitigate alcohol consumption have so far failed.
“We are incapable of killing alcohol’s allure,” he warns. “This is a battle we cannot win.”