While LSD is derived from the ergot fungus, it wasn’t synthesized as an isolated compound until 1938 by chemist Albert Hofmann. From the lab, LSD made its way into the hands of therapists and researchers, to the CIA who investigated its possible use as a weapon, and to a generation of young people in the 1960’s who revolutionized global culture and helped define a generation who upended older paradigms.
Things to Know
- LSD is derived from the ergot fungus, but was first synthesized by Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann
- LSD was extensively explored in therapy and clinical research before it was made illegal
- LSD was pushed forward by the 1960s youth counterculture, inspiring icons like the Beatles, the Grateful Dead, Timothy Leary, and Steve Jobs
- LSD was investigated in CIA experiments under the MK-Ultra program as a possible truth serum
LSD was first synthesized in 1938 by Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann, while he attempted to develop a stimulant to treat respiratory issues. However, its psychedelic properties were not discovered until five years later when Hofmann accidentally ingested a small amount of the compound and perceived its hallucinogenic effects.That experience led him to intentionally ingest a larger amount a few days later. That day, April 19, 1943, is marked in psychedelic history as Bicycle Day1 thanks to his highly altered bike ride home from his laboratory. Hofmann was accompanied on the ride by his lab assistant, Susi Ramstein, the first woman to subsequently take LSD.
LSD in Research
In the 1950s and 1960s, LSD gained significant attention and popularity, particularly within the counterculture movements of the time. Researchers, psychiatrists, and artists began experimenting with LSD, believing it had potential therapeutic and creative benefits. Harvard University psychologist Timothy Leary, a prominent figure associated with LSD during this era, was a vocal advocate for its use in exploring consciousness.
In the early years of LSD research, the compound was used as a pharmacological model of psychosis in order to develop a greater understanding of mental health disorders and possible treatment. As psychologists and psychiatrists conducted numerous trials and experiments, the compound’s potential therapeutic benefits soon emerged, which gave rise to investigations into the substance’s potential to ameliorate mental health issues.2 LSD was also used as a pharmacological model of psychosis in order to develop a greater understanding of mental health disorders and possible treatments. Dr. Stanislav Grof, MD, PhD administered LSD in a therapeutic setting and became an early leading researcher in the field of LSD-assisted therapy.
Grof recalls the psychiatric department he worked at receiving a large supply of LSD-25 from the pharmaceutical company Sandoz in Basel, Switzerland, accompanied by a letter describing Hofmann’s “serendipitous discovery” of LSD. The letter suggested LSD might be an “unconventional educational tool” that could induce experimental psychosis, allowing psychiatrists, psychologists, nurses and students the chance to better understand their patients.
Since [year], Grof has conducted over 4,000 LSD therapeutic sessions in Prague and in the United States.
LSD in Culture
LSD would go on to play a major supporting role in cultural history from the 1950s to the1970s. The CIA’s Project MKULTRA experiments; Ken Kesey’s book, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; Woodstock; the Merry Pranksters’ acid tests; Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert’s (Ram Dass) experiments at Harvard and Millbrook; and the Beatles and Grateful Dead are just a few examples of this compound’s cultural influence.
Some credited LSD with pivoting aspects of social consciousness, while others feared it was corrupting society, undermining respect for authority figures and fueling opposition to the Vietnam War. Under the framing of these latter concerns, along with growing public use of psychedelics in the 1960s, LSD was made illegal in the U.S. and listed as a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substance Act.
LSD in Therapy
Important research on the potential therapeutic value of LSD began prior to its cultural zeitgeist moment. One of these pioneering researchers was British psychiatrist Humphry Osmond, MD credited for coining the term “psychedelic.” In 1951, Osmond moved to Saskatchewan, Canada and established a lab to study LSD’s effects, initially with schizophrenic patients and then with alcoholics. Working with, among others, Canadian biochemist, physician and psychiatrist Dr. Abram Hoffer, MD, PhD. Osmond established the high-dose psychedelic treatment model—which engenders a transcendent state of consciousness—versus a low-dose psycholytic model meant to make psychotherapy more effective through “a release of repressed psychic material, particularly in anxiety states and obsessional neurosis.”3
In addition to early clinical explorations investigating the potential of LSD to treat alcoholism and treating significant psychiatric disorders, the compound was even studied as a possible treatment for autism in children.4 As one researcher remarked in 2005, “far from being fringe medical research, these LSD trials represented a fruitful, and indeed encouraging, branch of psychiatric research.” LSD early research did not persist for two reasons: 1) because of its association with reactive political and social movements, including student protests and other counterculture activities, and 2) because in the 1960s a new standard of evidence in research required randomized controlled trials, and LSD studies did not effectively meet the standard at that time.5
The last FDA-approved LSD clinical studies with humans in the U.S. were done in the 1980s. International clinical research on LSD has since continued.6 In the early 2000s, a few research studies emerged that investigated the effects of LSD on various conditions. Modern study models are carefully designed to manage risk and provide for improved clinical control and safety. Initial findings are positive, and while this field is nascent, many researchers are saying that they would like to see large, rigorous trials to determine potential therapeutic uses and protocols for LSD as a psychedelic-assisted therapy agent.
Recent research has primarily been surveys and reviews of early LSD research and hypotheses about future applications. Unlike psilocybin, MDMA, and ketamine, LSD has not yet been used in rigorous Phase 2 trials, although more trials are underway, including investigations into the effects of microdosing LSD.
LSD was also used by the U.S. government in a series of experiments known as MK-Ultra. This was a series of mind control and behavioral modification experiments conducted by the CIA during the 1950s and 60s, with the purpose of exploring chemical and psychological manipulation for government intelligence and interrogation. The program used LSD, among other psychoactive substances, as well as hypnosis, subliminal messaging, and other methodologies. Some subjects were dosed with LSD without their knowledge and suffered extreme mental anguish.
In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in psychedelic research, including LSD. Several studies have been conducted to investigate the therapeutic potential of LSD-assisted psychotherapy, particularly in the treatment of mental health conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is important to note that the recreational use of LSD remains illegal in most countries, but it is nonetheless continuing to grow in popularity.