Lysergic acid diethylamide, otherwise known as LSD (from the German name LysergSäureDiethylamid), is one of the strongest hallucinogenic drugs known today, and it is especially well known for its psychedelic and perception-changing properties. First synthesized by Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann in 1938, LSD is currently a Schedule I drug, meaning that it has a high potential for abuse and has no accepted medical use in the United States. Widely known for its illegal recreational use, LSD is also up and coming in the field of medicinal research mainly due to its psychiatric applications. It is being studied internationally for treatments of conditions ranging from cluster headaches to severe anxiety to drug addiction.
Hofmann was working for Sandoz Laboratories in Basel, Switzerland, when he was assigned to study a medicinal plant called squill and a fungus called ergot for use in the pharmaceutical industry. He was researching lysergic acid derivatives for use as circulatory and respiratory stimulants when the project was set aside for five years.
Then on April 16, 1943, while trying to duplicate the synthesis, Hofmann’s hand accidentally made contact with the substance and then his face, and thereby unleashing the effects of the drug. As he described it, Hofmann perceived “an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors,” and the effects had worn off two hours after the ingestion time.
Hofmann later intentionally ingested 250 micrograms of the substance on April 19, 1943, and began to feel the effects as he rode home that day on his bicycle. That day has since been coined “Bicycle Day.” Hofmann was also the first to identify psilocybin and psilocin as the active hallucinogenic compounds present in “magic mushrooms,” but that’s a story for a different time.
Introduced as a psychiatric drug in 1947, organizations such as the Central Intelligence Agency and Harvard University used LSD for medical and scientific research throughout the next few decades. While becoming a countercultural center-stage of the 1960s, possession of LSD was made federally illegal in the United States on October 24, 1968. The drug’s popularity declined throughout the 1980s and rose again during the growth of the rave subculture in the 1990s. Recent studies have been published depicting the effectiveness of LSD in treating alcoholism and anxiety.
Also chemically known as 9,10-Didehydro-N,N-diethyl-6-methylergoline-8ß-carboxamide, lysergic acid diethylamide is an ergoline derivative. Its chemical formula is C20H25N3O, its molecular weight is 323.44 g/mol, and it and has four stereoisomers, of which only (+)-LSD is psychoactive.
LSD is a colorless, odorless, water-soluble salt, and natural synthesis involves reacting lysergic acid and diethylamide, along with reacting agent phosphoryl chloride and several peptide-coupling reagents. Lysergic acid is synthesized from ergotamine, which is extracted from the ergot fungus.
Lysergic acid can also be produced synthetically in a 15-step process beginning with 3ß-carboxyethylindole. LSD emits strong fluorescence and glows a cool white hue when placed under UV light.
The biological pathway of LSD is not completely understood, but the drug is thought to interact with serotonin receptors, especially a particular receptor that interferes with inhibitory systems and results in disturbances of perception. Known as one of the most potent drugs available, LSD is active at doses as small as 20 micrograms.
Usually taken orally as a colorful blotch of paper, LSD induces strong hallucinogenic effects that usually last for a few hours, but occasional visions and psychotic states can last up to 48 to 96 hours. LSD has several possible side effects, such as mood changes, increased awareness, alterations in perspective, pupil dilation, difficulty focusing, slight heart rate increase, anxiety, tension, confusion, and paranoia. Cases of dependence, serious side effects such as irrational thinking that lead to death, and death due to overdose are all virtually unknown.
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