November 28, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Ingredients in magic mushrooms may have profound therapeutic potential in the treatment of psychological disorders, but under current UK law, it's almost impossible to study them. We ask Professor David Nutt where scientists can get their hands on some...

drip in a test tubeSwiss chemist Albert Hoffman synthesised LSD for the first time in 1938 while attempting to produce a blood stimulant for his employer, Sandoz Pharmaceutical. The discovery of its hallucinogenic effects a few years later – when Hoffman accidentally consumed some of the drug – led to its widespread use in researchers’ exploration of human consciousness and psychosis. In the 1950s and 60s there was an abundance of research on LSD, but its adoption as a recreational drug led to its outlaw in the late 1960s. The ban immediately stunted scientific research into LSD and its effects on the brain, hampering the prospect of potential therapeutic uses.

Known for his research into how drugs affect the brain and conditions such as addiction, anxiety and depression, Professor David Nutt has always been outspoken about the relative risks of different drugs and how this should be taken into account when classifying drugs. I sit down for coffee with Professor Nutt in a busy commuter café in Paddington station to discuss how current laws are impeding drug research. He is a very busy man and this is the only hour he has to spare within a two-week window. He fires off some emails on his Blackberry before we begin – he is wanted at a press conference in San Francisco.

I ask Professor Nutt how illegality changes the way drug research is funded. “The illegality has two effects. One is it makes it very difficult to study because the regulations are painful, disruptive, confusing and scary, and they also massively increase the price of doing the studies.” Only certain people are authorised to use illegal drugs in a professional capacity. LSD and psilocybin (the active ingredients in magic mushrooms) are classified in schedule 1, the highest restriction level of 5, meaning that possession and supply is prohibited except in accordance with the Home Office. As a consequence, Nutt’s research group is one of a small number in the world allowed to study illegal psychoactive drugs in humans. “Most people just don’t have the guts or stupidity to persevere with what we persevere with.”

The enormous costs and logistical problems associated with researching schedule 1 drugs are enough to put most scientists off working with LSD, psilocybin and similar compounds. It costs thousands of pounds to get a licence and can take years to get ethical approval for a single study. “It was easy compared to getting the drug,” Nutt said, in reference to his latest study with psilocybin. “The ethics took a year, getting the drug took two and a half years. Only one place in the world would make it and they didn’t have a licence so they had to get one.” Nutt acknowledges that you can buy psilocybin on the black market for a fraction of the price: “if I want magic mushrooms I’ll go and pick them on the bloody moor.” However, academic research demands that you source the active compounds via an official route, which dramatically increases the cost.

With early evidence suggesting that psychoactive drugs could be the key to unlocking our understanding of human consciousness, and that a single dose can cure depression in some treatment-resistant individuals, why are the regulations so restrictive? “It’s designed to be difficult so that people don’t do it. Governments don’t want to know that it is important and that the drugs are safe and you can use them experimentally, and they don’t want to be brought to account on the fact that they shouldn’t have banned them in the first place.”

In addition to the restrictions, another reason that many scientists shy away from researching psychoactive substances is the stigma surrounding their illegality. “To do what I’ve done is seen by many as career suicide.” Nutt anecdotally describes a situation a few years back when he was asked by Nature Neuroscience Reviews to co-author a paper with an American colleague about how drug policy impedes research. Nutt’s colleague refused to do so due to fears he would never get an NIH (National Institutes of Health) grant again. “They didn’t want their whole career ended by challenging authority,” Nutt explains. This wasn’t a one-off incident either. Nutt says that scientists frequently approach him after talks, shake his hand and say “thanks David, best thing I ever did was taking LSD when I was a kid. We’re with you, but we just don’t want to go near it.”

Clearly many scientists don’t want to be associated with controversial research involving illegal drugs. In Nutt’s opinion, “scientists aren’t interested in science, they’re interested in getting the next grant.” Does David Nutt not share their fear of stigmatisation? “I’m 65. My career is over anyway, so I don’t need to be part of this academic route. I have more autonomy. If you’re in the system where you rely on governments to fund you, challenging governments is not a good thing.” Quoting French Enlightenment writer Voltaire, Nutt reveals: “it is dangerous to be right when the government is wrong.”

visualization of LSD on the brain
Under the influence of LSD, the brain’s visual cortex has increased connectivity with other brain regions (right) than when imaged under placebo.

Against the odds, Nutt’s group remain undeterred in their study of illegal drugs in humans, sometimes resorting to more creative ways to fund their research. “I’ve reconciled myself to the fact that I won’t get funding for this research,” he said. Imperial’s ground-breaking MRI scans of the human brain under LSD, published in April, were made possible through a crowdfunding campaign and The Beckley Foundation, a UK-based think-tank and NGO that supports psychoactive substance research. Despite these roundabout routes of funding, Nutt acknowledges that in an ideal world, the regulations would be changed to make psychoactive drug research easier. “Regulations don’t stop recreational [drug] use, they just stop science.”

“I’m a psychiatrist and I want to help people. These drugs have huge potential, as we knew in the 50s and 60s, and I’m really pissed off that people have been denied them for 50 years.” The argument is that until we take LSD, psilocybin and other psychoactive substances out of the restrictive schedule 1 bracket, they will be too costly, both in terms of money and time, to use in wide scale research. “We’ve got to get the law changed, and we’ve got to get patients on board,” he says. Nutt is already campaigning to change the law and is trying to encourage established scientific organisations to join him. “Doctors, the BMA [British Medical Association], and the Royal College of Psychiatrists should all be campaigning to get the law changed. The problem is that the government pays them, so they fear the consequences.”

Given the potential for illegal psychoactive drugs to propel our understanding of human consciousness and psychological disorders, it seems illogical that the system makes it so difficult for scientists to research them. As we understand more about these drugs and their potential to reveal the inner workings of the human mind, it is likely that their position in schedule 1 will be challenged. David Nutt will spearhead the campaign, and as support for psychoactive drug research steadily grows, there is hope for the movement yet.  

Images: magic eye, Albisoima; lab, Alex_Traksel; MRI scan images, courtesy of Imperial College London.

Greta Keenan is studying for an MSc in Science Communication.