Science takes a fresh look at mind-bending drugs

Tue Nov 2, 2010 1:04pm EDT
 
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By Ben Hirschler

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Illicit drugs may be a scourge of modern life but the use of mind-altering substances is threaded through human history and cultures, from betel nut in Asia to coca leaf in the Andes to espresso coffee in Europe.

With illegal drug use on the rise and trade in banned products worth some $320 billion a year, according to UN estimates, a new exhibition at London's Wellcome Collection seeks to put today's "high society" into perspective.

Bringing together such objects as an 11th-century manuscript on poppy remedies and a Victorian-era hallucinogenic snuff set from the Amazon, the Collection's "High Society" exhibition comes at a time when ideas about drugs are in a state of flux, according to co-curator Mike Jay.

"The line between use and abuse is very difficult to police because it keeps changing," he said in an interview. "It's changing at the moment, for example with the debate over whether we should think of cannabis as a medicine."

California, whose citizens are voting on Tuesday on the legalization of marijuana or cannabis, has allowed medical use of the drug since 1996. In Europe, multiple sclerosis patients can now be prescribed an under-the-tongue cannabis spray.

At the same time, scientists are looking again at the potential therapeutic benefits of banned drugs like LSD or "magic mushrooms," combined with psychotherapy, as a treatment for depression, compulsive disorders and chronic pain.

Swiss researchers argued in a scientific paper earlier this year that imaging showed psychedelics such as lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and psilocybin -- the psychoactive component in magic mushrooms -- acted on the brain in ways that could help various disorders.

Other groups are looking at methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), or ecstasy, as a possible treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.   Continued...