Good Acid, Man

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I have never tried acid. By the time I was into my late teens I was too late for 60’s counter-culture’s drug of choice, LSD. First synthesised in 1938 by Albert Hofmann the drug is famed for producing altered time and sensory illusions. Whilst it was not addictive per se and is not known to have caused brain damage, it did engender acute adverse psychiatric reactions such as paranoia, anxiety and delusions. LSD was extremely popular as a drug and was initially legal but the authorities clamped down on it hard and its day was over. A more natural alternative, magic mushrooms, has filled the gap.

My thoughts turned to acid the other day when I read that a team of researchers at London’s Imperial College were recruiting volunteers for research into the possible uses of psilocybin to combat anxiety, depression and addiction which is scheduled to start in April. How do you get these gigs?

The anti-depression study will begin with 12 patients whose brain activity will be monitored before and after receiving a dose of psilocybin. Interestingly, there is still a stigma attached to LSD and so to avoid controversy the researchers have decided to concentrate on the active ingredient in magic mushrooms. The next stage of the research will be to extend the trials to involve 60 patients, half of whom (possibly disappointingly for them) will be given placebos.

Trials in America have already indicated that a single dose of a hallucinatory drug can have dramatic effects on anxiety and depression, in particular amongst patients dealing with terminal cancer. They claim that people who had been hitherto scared out of their wits lost their fear after a dose. Seems to make some kind of sense.  After all, if movies like Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter are to be believed, troops out in Vietnam were routinely spaced out before they launched a raid. Beats a slug of rum or brandy, I think.

A blast of a hallucinogen may also be the key to packing up smoking if a study conducted at John Hopkins University in Baltimore is to be believed. A small group of smokers (tobacco stunts your growth, after all) were given psilocybin to treat their habit. Of the 15 guinea pigs 12 were able to give up smoking and lasted out for at least 6 months, a far higher success rate than other nicotine replacement therapies can boast. A more extensive study is underway. Acid on the NHS – there’s a concept to mull over.

The improvements in imaging technology now enable scientists to get a better picture of the impact of hallucinogens on the grey cells. The ne’erayers, though, claim that this is the thin end of the wedge. They feel that a wider discussion of the wider benefits of psychedelic drugs will increase public demand for products which if not strictly controlled would be potentially dangerous.

Can’t say I agree. I will look forward to following the progress of this piece of research.

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Amnesia Corner

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My memory is falling apart. It came home to me the other day when I and a colleague (of similar age) were in a pub discussing some mutual contacts and when we came to recollect their names our minds went blank. Even more worrying was that after we had moved on to another subject one of us would interject, almost in a Tourette’s fashion, with the name of the poor sap we were trying to recall some while back. It was like that Two Ronnies’ Mastermind sketch where the contestant answers the previous question. This is all we have to look forward to!

But what is the cause of it all? Is it just old age?. Well, the clue to the problem, at least according to some research by University College London which is published in Neurology, is the environment in which this memory lapse occurred. Having studied the drinking habits of 5,000 men and 2,000 women aged between 45 and 69 over a period of 10 years, testing how well they think and remember things, their research revealed that heavy drinkers – frighteningly they define a heavy drinker as someone who consumes 4.5 units a day (hardly enough to get going, methinks) – began to suffer memory failures and deterioration in their cognitive processes between 18 months and 6 years earlier than those who drank less.

As I looked into my pint glass and reflected on this news, I happened upon some more research, this time on the effects of coffee on the old grey cells. Regular readers will know I enjoy an early morning coffee, lovingly prepared by Karen at the Moo-La-La on the London platform at Farnborough station. According to Michael Yassa from John Hopkins University in Baltimore whose research is published in Nature Neuroscience there is evidence that a cup or two of coffee could boost the brain’s ability to store long-term memories. Those who had a shot or two of caffeine after looking at a series of pictures were better able to distinguish them from similar images in tests the next day than those who had not had a cup of coffee by some 10%. That doesn’t sound a large margin but, hey what do I know? I’m not a scientist desperate to justify his public funding.  Yassa surmises that caffeine leads to higher levels of a stress hormone in the brain called norepinephrine which helps memory retention. It may be that a regular caffeine habit is beneficial to your overall health and keeps Alzheimer’s away.

So now I am really confused. Does the caffeine cancel the alcohol out? Or is the alcohol too powerful to allow the caffeine to work its magic? As they say, the more you know, the less you understand!