Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds: a familiar refrain from one of the most iconic bands of the flower generation, the lyrics evoking whimsical images of a dream-like journey. It is commonly believed that this song was inspired by an LSD trip. So much so, in fact, that the song name has become a slang term for the drug, despite the songwriters asserting that the inspiration was not drugs, but a childhood drawing.
What Is LSD?
In 1938, Albert Hoffman, working for the Swiss chemical company Sandoz, was seeking to synthesize a compound that would stimulate the respiratory and circulatory systems. A fellow scientist had isolated an active substance called ergotamine from ergot, a fungus found in tainted rye that had been used as a folk medicine for generations. Ergot, in its natural form, was a deadly poison, though, in small doses, the muscle- and blood vessel-constricting properties of ergot could be useful to hasten childbirth and staunch bleeding after delivery.
Hofmann developed a synthetic process to build the ergot compounds from their component chemicals. The 25th compound he created, reacting lysergic acid with diethylamine, a derivative of ammonia, was known as LSD-25 for the purposes of laboratory testing. This compound proved disappointing for medicinal purposes; it was by accidental absorption that he discovered its hallucinogenic properties. The drug was then produced for further testing, and ultimately exploded into the counter-culture of the 1960s, its hallucinogenic properties ostensibly providing a means to find spiritual enlightenment. The widespread abuse of the drug resulted in its being banned as a threat to public health.
How Do Hallucinogens Work?
Classic hallucinogens are thought to produce their perception-altering effects by acting on neural circuits in the brain that uses the neurotransmitter serotonin. Specifically, some of their most prominent effects occur in the prefrontal cortex—an area involved in mood, cognition, and perception—as well as other regions important in regulating arousal and physiological responses to stress and panic.
LSD effects may include altered awareness of the surroundings, perceptions, and feelings as well as hallucinatory sensations and images. Adverse psychiatric reactions such as anxiety, paranoia, and delusions are possible.
Under the influence of LSD, the ability to make sensible judgments and see common dangers is impaired, making the user susceptible to potentially fatal personal injury. After an LSD trip, the user may suffer acute anxiety or depression, and may also experience flashbacks, which are recurrences of the effects of LSD days or even months after taking the last dose. A flashback occurs suddenly, often without warning.
Hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (HPPD) describes a post-LSD exposure syndrome in which LSD-like visual changes are not temporary and brief, as they are in flashbacks, but instead are persistent, and cause clinically significant impairment or distress. HPPD differs from flashbacks in that it is persistent and apparently entirely visual (although mood and anxiety disorders are sometimes diagnosed in the same individuals).
LSD may trigger panic attacks or feelings of extreme anxiety, known familiarly as a “bad trip.” Review studies suggest that LSD likely plays a role in precipitating the onset of acute psychosis in previously healthy individuals with an increased likelihood in individuals who have a family history of schizophrenia.
Bad trips and flashbacks are only part of the risks of LSD use. LSD users may also manifest relatively long-lasting psychoses, such as schizophrenia or severe depression.
LSD is not addictive, but it does produce tolerance, so users need to take progressively higher doses to achieve the same state of intoxication. This is an extremely dangerous practice, given the unpredictability of the drug.