Columns / Discourse / May 8, 2008

The Neuroscience of Bicycle Day

As burgeoning neuroscientists, we enjoy taking interest in a wide variety of topics, since in the end everything is experienced through our brains. Thus, the plan for this week’s article was to cover something intrinsically relevant to us all since we recently published somewhat “specialized” pieces about alcohol on Flunk Day and marijuana on 4/20. However, a week ago we were struck with a unique opportunity upon the demise of a very special man, and thus recruited the mysterious alumni Aaron Samuel to help out with a subject dear to him. So without further ado, the Neuroscience of Bicycle Day.

The Swiss scientist Albert Hofmann was born January 11, 1906, and died 102 years later — this past week, on April 29, 2008. Intrigued by the plant world as a child, Hofmann became a research chemist specializing in medicinal plants. In addition to a distinguished career as a research chemist, he is best remembered for LSD, the ergot-derived drug he first synthesized in 1938. The 25th in a series of lysergic acid derivatives, it was called LSD-25 (Lyserg-saure-diathylamid). Although initially discarded as pharmacologically uninteresting, upon experiencing a “peculiar presentiment,” Dr. Hofmann decided to return to it, five years later, for further testing. During the final cleaning of the compound, he began to feel restless and dizzy and had to interrupt his work to return home, where he experienced “a dreamlike state, with…an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors.”

Intrigued, he elected to perform a deliberate self-experiment, ingesting 250 micrograms with water. Although he expected this to be a low dose with minimal activity, due to the extreme potency of the drug it is now recognized to be a relatively large dose. Unable to continue writing in his notebook, he asked his lab assistant Miss Ramstein to help him home via bicycle, due to a war time restriction on automobiles. This day, April 19, 1943, has become known as “Bicycle Day.”

LSD-25 was initially employed experimentally as a drug that mimicked the symptoms of psychosis. However, the field of psychiatry was also poised to benefit during the golden age of academic LSD research in the 1950s, with hundreds of papers published on topics such as treatment of depression and alcoholism, for which it was considered a therapeutic aid. Moreover, the experience of the drug was powerfully moving to many of the early subjects. Owing to this excitement, some of them eventually took LSD out of the medical community and used it in self-experiments with friends: eminent writers, painters, musicians and other intellectuals. It was during this time that the popular name “psychedelic,” meaning “mind manifesting,” was coined by psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond during an exchange with author Aldous Huxley.

The popularity of the drug grew along with the United States hippie movement of the 1960s, promoted by (ex-) Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary’s mantra of “turn on, tune in, drop out.” Ironically, due to media demonization and the ensuing public hysteria, this call for freedom became LSD’s death knell, leading to a federal ban in 1967. The rest of the world soon followed, with Czechoslovakia being one of the last holdouts of psychedelic research banning the drug in 1975. The changing role of LSD from guarded research therapeutic to recreational intoxicant for the masses caused Hofmann to label it his “problem child” in his 1980 book, although he regarded it simultaneously as a “wonder drug.” About his personal opinion on the drug and the adamant humanitarianism it inspired within him, Hofmann said, “Through my LSD experience and my new picture of reality, I became aware of the wonder of creation, the magnificence of nature and of the animal and plant kingdom. I became very sensitive to what will happen to all this and all of us.”

Despite legitimate advocacy for safe use of the drug, for the past 40 years LSD has been relegated to the dustbin of “things you should get out of your system in college,” but the tide is beginning to turn. Nobel prize-winning biochemist Kary Mullis attributed to the mind-expanding effects of LSD his invention of the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR), a technique of DNA sequence amplification that is central to genetics work. In addition, eminent biologist Francis Crick was taking regular low doses of LSD to inspire creativity when he conceived of the double-helix structure of DNA. Academics who were only children during the witch-hunts of the 1960s and 1970s are now writing major grants in positions of leadership on research boards. In 2006, research was proposed investigating LSD as a treatment for cluster headaches, a notoriously treatment-resistant type of migraine, and towards the end of 2007, a Swiss study was approved to look at LSD as a psychotherapeutic for subjects with end-of-life anxiety secondary to advanced-stage illness. Before his death, Hofmann described the long-awaited resumption of LSD psychotherapy research as “the fulfillment of my heart’s desire.” Hopefully one day, Hofmann’s dream will be realized and LSD will take its rightful place in the pantheon of psychoactive medicines.

Got an idea for a neuro column? Email it as well as any questions or revelations to aarnold@knox.edu

Aaron Samuel


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