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How Do LSD and Other Synthetic Drugs Relate to Schizophrenia?

LSD and certain hallucinogens can trigger psychotic symptoms in those already predisposed to schizophrenia. Drug use does not, however, cause the disorder.

The Evolution of LSD

LSD is one of the most potent synthetic hallucinogens. It is a Schedule I drug according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

The chemical D-lysergic acid diethylamide was synthesized for the first time, from the ergot fungus, in 1938. The intention of the drug was to treat circulation or respiratory problems with a stimulant, but no such effects were found.

As people continually experimented with the drug,  the hallucinogenic properties were discovered in 1943, leading the medication to be examined as a treatment for schizophrenia and criminal behaviors like sexual perversion and alcoholism. In 1948, LSD was introduced to the United States as a prescription medication.

Between the 1940s and the 1970s, LSD was used by the psychiatric community for a variety of reasons, the most common of which was to teach psychiatry and psychology students what it was like to have schizophrenia. This is because the drug’s effects mimic schizophrenia symptoms in many ways, particularly the dissociation from reality and hallucinations.

After students began diverting their LSD to recreational use among friends in the 1950s, LSD became part of counterculture movements. By the 1980s, LSD was listed as a totally illegal substance by the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), with no medical value at all. It is considered only a dangerous drug of abuse.

Psychological Issues With LSD Use

Unlike other substances listed in the CSA, like heroin and marijuana, LSD is not technically addictive; however, the drug can cause serious psychological disturbances and can be detrimental to mental health.

LSD, along with other synthetic hallucinogens or stimulants, may trigger mental illness symptoms including schizophrenia. They may cause a period of psychosis that mimics schizophrenia, or they can exacerbate symptoms of an already diagnosed mental condition.

While hallucinogens typically do not cause mental illness, they can make the underlying condition more apparent and detrimental to health.

Schizophrenia Symptoms: Similar to Hallucinogen Highs

Schizophrenia is a chronic mental health disorder that impacts how someone thinks, feels, and acts. It is hard for people who have schizophrenia to understand reality because they have several symptoms that get in the way of processing stimuli. The symptoms of schizophrenia can be very disabling and require long-term treatment.

This condition typically appears between the ages of 16 and 30. There are three categories of symptoms: positive, negative, and cognitive.

These are psychotic behaviors that are atypical of psychologically normal individuals. Typically, these symptoms involve losing touch with reality in some way. They include:

  • Hallucinations, or seeing, hearing, feeling, or tasting something that is not present in reality
  • Delusions, or false beliefs. These are often delusions of grandeur or inflating one’s abilities, or paranoid delusions, such as believing one is being followed or spied on
  • Thought disorders or dysfunctional thinking
  • Movement disorders, like physical agitation

These symptoms usually involve disruption of behaviors and normal emotions, including:

  • Reduced facial and vocal expression of emotion called “flat affect.”
  • Diminished pleasure in daily activities
  • Trouble beginning and sustaining activities
  • Less speaking

This group of symptoms may be subtle in some individuals, while they may be the most apparent in others, which could lead to initial misdiagnosis. Cognitive symptoms include:

  • Poor executive function, like understanding information and making decisions
  • Trouble focusing or paying attention
  • Problems with remembering information immediately after learning it

There are several risk factors that increase the likelihood of schizophrenia appearing. These include:

  • Genetic heritage
  • Environmental factors like exposure to viruses or exposure to nicotine in utero
  • Differences in brain chemistry or brain structure, which are idiopathic

Schizophrenia and Substance Abuse

Abusing drugs or alcohol has been associated with triggering initial symptoms at an earlier age, making symptoms worse, and being part of the individual’s self-medication process before they receive a diagnosis.

LSD and Schizophrenia

There are many medical treatments for schizophrenia that can manage symptoms. Part of this treatment process often includes quitting alcohol, cigarettes, and other drugs of abuse so that brain chemistry will be impacted only by prescription substances.

Some people may assume that hallucinogens or psychedelic drugs like LSD, ecstasy, or ketamine cause schizophrenia or related psychotic disorders. While they may trigger symptoms or make existing symptoms worse, schizophrenia is believed to be present in the brain from an early age, with symptoms appearing in late adolescence or young adulthood. The confusion makes sense, however, since there are several drugs that can cause psychotic side effects.

LSD’s Ability to Trigger Schizophrenia Symptoms

While LSD is the most famous hallucinogen, several drugs that are psychedelic or stimulants can cause similar side effects. Effects of LSD on the brain specifically include:

  • Visual hallucinations
  • Intensified smells, sounds, and tactile sensations
  • Feeling like you understand connections between events, people, or things more
  • Distorted sense of time and reality
  • Depersonalization and derealization, or feeling separated from your body or surroundings
  • Synesthesia, or overlapping sensory perceptions leading to “seeing sounds” or “hearing colors.”
  • Intense anxiety or panic
  • Delusions of grandeur or paranoia
  • Rapid mood swings
  • The fear of losing your identity or disintegrating into nothing

For some people, psychotic symptoms from taking too much LSD can last for several years or require lifetime treatment. This is not because LSD causes psychosis, but because it can change brain chemistry enough to make schizophrenia symptoms much more apparent.

Drugs like cocaine, amphetamines, including MDMA or ecstasy, and marijuana (a psychedelic with depressant qualities) can raise the severity of schizophrenia symptoms. These drugs are also environmental triggers rather than causes of the mental health condition.

Schizophrenia Risk Increases With Drug Abuse

About half of people who have schizophrenia also abuse alcohol and drugs. The most commonly abused drugs are alcohol, tobacco, cocaine, and marijuana. While they do not reduce hallucinations, lessen anxiety and paranoia, or improve speaking, reasoning, or attentiveness, they are widely abused by many people who self-medicate mental health conditions. Without any substances involved, symptoms of mental illnesses, ranging from depression and anxiety to schizophrenia and psychosis, are disturbing and stressful.

People with schizophrenia, especially those who do not have a diagnosis of this condition, are more likely to suffer job loss, lost relationships, legal problems, increased need for emergency medical treatment, and incarceration if they abuse substances.

There is some evidence that parental substance abuse increases the risk of the child developing schizophrenia. A survey conducted using Denmark’s Psychiatric Central Research Register found that there was a 6-fold increased risk among children whose mothers abused cannabis while pregnant. There was a 5.5-fold increased risk when the fathers abused cannabis during this time.

Alcohol abuse increased the risk of schizophrenia in children by 5.6 times when the mother drank before birth; this rate was lowered about 50 percent if the mother drank after the child was born.

Substance abuse may play a role in a higher risk of schizophrenia in people whose parents struggled with addiction. Parents who abuse drugs increase the risk that their children will abuse drugs too, further linking substance abuse with schizophrenia but providing no specific cause-and-effect relationship.

Get Help From Addiction Specialists Who Understand Co-Occurring Disorders

While LSD and other psychedelics like marijuana or stimulants like ecstasy do not cause schizophrenia, they may be abused as a method of self-medication by people who struggle with schizophrenia. This will make symptoms of the mental health condition worse.

It is essential to find addiction treatment that specializes in treating co-occurring disorders, like drug abuse and psychosis.

Sources

(October 29, 2013). LSD. Center for Substance Abuse Research (CESAR). Retrieved March 2019 from http://www.cesar.umd.edu/cesar/drugs/lsd.asp

(February 2016). Schizophrenia. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Retrieved March 2019 from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/schizophrenia/index.shtml

(March 25, 2009). Can Drug Use Cause Schizophrenia? Everyday Health. Retrieved March 2019 from https://www.everydayhealth.com/schizophrenia/drug-use-and-schizophrenia.aspx

(October 8, 2018). Schizophrenia and Substance Abuse. Psych Central. Retrieved March 2019 from https://psychcentral.com/lib/schizophrenia-and-substance-abuse/

(October 21, 2016). Schizophrenia Risk Increased with Alcohol, Drug Abuse. Medical News Today. Retrieved March 2019 from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/313602.php

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