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Can LSD help treat anxiety? Researchers at the Cleveland Clinic want to find out

The Cleveland Clinic is participating in a clinic trial using LSD to treat generalized anxiety disorder.
The Cleveland Clinic is participating in a clinic trial using LSD to treat generalized anxiety disorder.

The Cleveland Clinic is joining a growing number of medical institutions studying whether psychedelic drugs like LSD can benefit people who suffer from mental illness.

Researchers in the 1950s and 60s did some testing of psychedelics to see if they would help people with various disorders, but the findings back then weren’t promising enough to pursue, said Dr. Brian Barnett, co-director of the Cleveland Clinic’s Treatment Resistant Depression Clinic.

Now doctors and pharmaceutical companies are considering these drugs again, he said.

“Our studies have very different metrics now," Barnett said. "They're much higher quality, and so we want to give these a second look.”

The Clinic says it has begun its first trial using LSD to manage mental illness. The clinical trial will give patients LSD to treat generalized anxiety disorder.

There is growing evidence that suggests psychedelics improve symptoms for mental disorders, Barnett said.

“The psychedelic renaissance that's been going on over the last 15 years or so, it's mostly been confined to the coasts," he said. "People in the Midwest and other areas have not really had any access to these trials at all.”

Anxiety disorders affect nearly one in five Americans — some 40 million people, according to figures from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA).

During the Clinic trial, participants get a single drug dose or a placebo and are monitored for 12 hours. Researchers monitor how patients' anxiety responds over the next few weeks and months.

"It's a living room-type setting where we have a couch that the patient lies on. The room is painted in warm colors, there's calming artwork on the walls," he said. "Context and the setting really play a role in the effects of LSD and likely in the therapeutic efficacy."

Drugs like LSD are appealing because recent studies indicate they don’t have to be taken as often as other treatments for anxiety, according to Barnett.

“People might only need to come in for treatment for their conditions maybe every six months, maybe every few years," he said. "For many people, that's a lot more appealing than taking medications every day.”

Barnett said he hopes this study will offer some relief for patients whose anxiety doesn’t improve with medication or who can’t tolerate the side effects.

People with anxiety disorder can enroll by contacting the Cleveland Clinic at 216-828-5471.

Taylor Wizner is a health reporter with Ideastream Public Media.