Molecule of the Month: Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD)

Avid readers of FTDM may have noticed my posting hiatus over these past few months. Fear not, I was simply traveling and now I'm back with vengeance! In tribute to my journeys, I thought it would be appropriate to write on a molecule known for its "trips". Yes, I'm hilarious, I know.

This post keeps with a theme of posts collectively referred to as "Molecule of the Month". This theme describes every day materials from a molecular perspective. Thus far, we've covered salt, Dads, sugar, anthocyanins, keratin, and - in this post - LSD. Brace yourselves.

History: What is LSD and why do people use it?
LSD (or "acid") is chemically referred to as lysergic acid diethylamide. Most of us have heard tall tales from our counterculture parents using LSD in the 60s and 70s, but it was Albert Hofmann (chemist) who first synthesized the chemical in 1938. Hofmann was innocently trying to find medical applications from chemical compounds found in ergot (a fungus). Several years later, Hofmann ingested LSD. Soon afterwards (1947), LSD was patented as a psychiatric drug. This drug was primarily used as a tool by the government for conducting research on its effects on human behavior & mental health until the patent expired in the 60s.  

The chemical and 3-D structure of LSD (Wikimedia Commons)

The chemical and 3-D structure of LSD (Wikimedia Commons)

People of all backgrounds use this drug for the primary reason of having a "psychedelic" experience. However, research has shown that LSD may also possess therapeutic benefits. For example, taking LSD has shown to help relieve those suffering from chronic pain or anxiety.

The drug is associated with colors, music, and delusions - but why? What about LSD causes us to have these symptoms?

What's going on (chemically) when we use LSD?
Being from Salt Lake City, Utah, there's a warm place in my heart for the infamous Sundance Film SLC Punk. In the film, one of the characters (Bob, a student majoring in chemistry) warns about the impacts of doing LSD in reference to the experience of a friend (Sean):
*Note* The following movie clip contains profane language.

Bob depicts Sean's experience as delusional. Outwardly, Sean believes his mother is actually a bull. Why Sean thinks this is because of LSD's effect on serotonin.  

Serotonin (5-hydroxytryptamine or 5-HT) is a molecule that is responsible for neuroendrocine pathways ultimately contributing to the feeling we call "happiness". It's unclear whether LSD acts by blocking 5-HT receptors (resulting in a build-up of serotonin), activating 5-HT receptors (keeping them "on" for a prolonged period of time, resulting in a lasting serotonin-like effect), or does a little bit of both.  Regardless, the end result of excessive serotonin (or serotonin-like) activity occurring in the brain is the same. Extremely small doses (micrograms) of LSD can successfully accomplish this effect, but doing too much can create a string of unwanted symptoms.

Symptoms from taking LSD (Wikimedia Commons)

Symptoms from taking LSD (Wikimedia Commons)

But it's not all doom and gloom, many who take LSD experience what is known as synethesia. Some are born with synethesia, keeping them in a constant state of "tasting" shapes and "hearing" smells due to neuronal re-wiring in the brain. LSD's interaction with 5-HT receptors gives the same outcome for a temporary amount of time.  However, as we saw with Sean, too much of anything is never good and, in this case, can lead to permanent brain damage.  Some even experience permanent damage after one use.

Why do people experience these "false" realities while on LSD?
Many people who have "tripped" on LSD claim to see images like this in their hallucinations:

A paper published in 2000 goes over precisely why this occurs. In the paper, the authors describe the mathematical components behind the visuals we see while "tripping" and how these relate to our "mystifying" experiences when taking LSD.

Perhaps all this scientific explaining has ruined life for you. If so, I sincerely apologize. Hopefully that's not the case. Hopefully it's made you think a little bit more about the chemicals we ingest for recreational use and/or out of requirement for survival. It's certainly done that for me!

Questions? Comments? Confusions?

Until next time, stay hungry!