Scientists want to give psychedelics to people in vegetative states

Scientists want to give psychedelics to people in vegetative states

Researchers say LSD, psilocybin might wake up unconscious people

CultureApril 29, 2019 By Reilly Capps

A year ago, a son wrote on the Internet that his dad was in a coma, on life support. The dad was a Navy vet, a horse lover, and the son wanted him conscious one more time. To look him in the eye. To say goodbye.

In his grief, his pain, the son wondered: "Would me giving him LSD do anything positive?" he asked on Reddit.

Crazy idea, came the responses. Don't do it.

But a new scientific paper suggests it's not such a wild idea after all.

"Psychedelics as a treatment for disorders of consciousness," was published in the journal Neuroscience of Consciousness, and written by researchers from Imperial College London, one of the world's top universities, which just opened the world's first center dedicated to psychedelic research.

The paper proposes giving psilocybin — magic mushrooms — to people who are in vegetative states. A trip could wake them up.

Psychedelics are famously said to "expand consciousness." And, when mapped by fMRI, they do, in fact, light up the brain. In scientific language, psychedelics "increase complexity," which is one measure of consciousness.

[A drawing shows how the brain on psilocybin (magic mushrooms), shown at right, is more complex than a normal brain, shown at left. From the Journal of the Royal Society Interface. Cover photo from Shutterstock]

By increasing brain complexity, "psilocybin could elevate conscious awareness in patients" in a vegetative state, the researchers write.

People fall into vegetative states after brain injuries. They're more aware than comatose or brain dead people. They can open their eyes — but the lights aren't on, so to speak.

They're heartbreaking cases. Patients languish in hospitals. Docs try everything: drugs, electric shocks, surgery — few treatments seem to help. Families often pull the plug.

The idea of using LSD as a treatment has floated around the Internet for decades. There are rumors — totally unconfirmed — that an astronomical dose of LSD — "a quarter of a vial," or 25 hits  — woke up an unresponsive dude and, after a few days, he was able to speak. It's entirely possible those stories are true.

brain scan of brain on LSD

[Previous research by Robin Carhart-Harris and othersshowed that, in a scan, LSD lights up the brain. From PNAS.]

Psychedelics were taboo in the West for 40 years. But, today, psychedelics are trendy again, and treating everything from depression to anorexia to headaches. (Denver is having the world's first psychedelic vote right now.) One author of this paper, Robin Carhart-Harris, has done a TED talk and been featured in the biggest publications in Britain. These researchers are now brave enough to try this experiment in public, and publish the results.

Of course, the big question is: would it be ok to give psilocybin to a person who can't consent? These folks can't nod their heads yes, let alone sign a waiver. What if they become conscious, but wake up to a "bad trip"? A "bad trip" is already pretty bad — now imagine a bad trip in a hospital bed in a body you can't move.

On the other hand: "bad trips" usually cause no lasting damage, and psilocybin is physically safe. And how much worse can life get for these people?  

The researchers suggest starting slow, either by testing on animals or using microdoses.

In the case of the son who wanted to give LSD to his dad, the dad died before the son had a chance, he wrote. (Because the dad was brain dead, LSD probably wouldn't work anyway, these researchers suggest.) But for thousands of others, psychedelics could offer hope to hopeless cases.