LSD is a famously potent psychedelic. But new research has investigated the drug’s potential in a whole new setting, as a painkiller. A future LSD pain treatment, if it happens, would be useful in itself. It could also help undo severe stigma against LSD, while offering an alternative to prescription drugs like opioids—which help most pain patients but are associated with problems for a minority.
Psychedelic researchers at the Beckley Foundation in the UK and Maastricht University in the Netherlands, first partnered in 2017 to study LSD’s cognitive and therapeutic effects. Specifically, their program studies LSD microdosing, which is, as the name suggests, the practice of taking very small doses of a drug. Microdosing LSD will not cause any hallucinogenic effects, but may have subtler effects on a person’s mood, emotion or focus.
For their LSD pain study, the researchers worked with 24 healthy volunteers, who were taking either a placebo or LSD doses of 5, 10 or 20 micrograms. (For comparison, a typical non-prescribed LSD dose might be around 100 micrograms.) The investigators ran several tests on their subjects—including a “Cold Pressor Test,” which involves sticking your hands in a bucket of cold water and holding them there until you can’t anymore.
They found that a 20 microgram LSD dose, compared to placebo, was the most effective for reducing pain. Volunteers experienced both lower pain tolerance—the amount of time they endured the cold water—and subjective feelings of unpleasantness. The impact of 20 micrograms of LSD was deemed comparable to that of opioids like oxycodone or morphine, but the two smaller doses did not have the same effect. The pain-reducing effects of the 20 microgram dose remained strongly apparent up to five hours afterwards.
“I am encouraged by these results as I have long believed that LSD may not only change the sensations of pain but also our subjective relationship with it,” said lead researcher Amanda Feilding, the Beckley Foundation’s director, who has been profiled by Filter.
So what’s the next step? Researchers would need to run more clinical trials to test and replicate these findings in more detail and at a larger scale. So if you’re waiting for your prescription LSD painkiller, you’ll probably have to keep waiting for years. The drug’s legal status adds to this: In the US, LSD is categorized as a Schedule I narcotic, considered “highly addictive” and not to be prescribed by doctors for any use.
As LSD use became increasingly popular in the 1960’s, and more closely associated with the counter-cultural and anti-Vietnam War movements, governments in the US and around the world responded by banning it. The passing of the Controlled Substances Act and similar measures effectively slowed down any clinical LSD research for decades.
But the tide has started to turn in recent years. Governments have both sanctioned psychedelic research and pursued decriminalization or legalization of drugs like marijuana. Beckley and Maastricht are now part of a growing research network that’s studying the potential of psychedelics to treat everything from depression to addiction to autism.
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