The First MDA trip and the measurement of ‘mystical experience’ after MDA, LSD, and Psilocybin

8:50 pm entactogen, hallucinogen, human

I remember sitting in Heinrich Waelsch’s study overlooking the Hudson in August 1951, just before returning to England to take up my newly-created post. “What is experimental psychiatry?” asked Heinrich Waelsch, giving me that whimsical penetrating look of his. The newly named professor did not rightly know. “I suppose,” I said, hesitatingly, “it is the application of experimental research method to clinical psychiatry.” — Joel Elkes

July 16th was the anniversary of Gordon Alles’ first self-experiment with MDA in 1930 —to my knowledge the first experience with an MDMA-like drug. Much later, at a 1959 conference at UCSF, he described his experience. If you’ve ever wondered what a hallucinogen/MDMA-like experience would be like to someone without any expectations aside from an interest in finding treatments for allergies and congestion, here is his remarkably observant account:

To confirm the diminished degree of circulatory activity by administering these compounds to man, I decided to take orally a dosage of 0.4 mgm. per kgm. of the hydrochloride salt of the latter compound. This represented a total dose of 36 mgm. of this salt, 3,4-methylenedioxyamphetamine hydrochloride. For comparative purposes, I was then well calibrated as to the circulatory effects of 40 and 50 mgm. of amphetamine sulfate.

During the following two hours no notable changes in blood pressure or heart rate were noted nor were there any subjective reactions. Since in my previous experiences, amphetamine salts in adequate dosage invariably acted notably peripherally and centrally within an hour of oral administration, an additional dosage of 1.0 mgm. per kgm., of the methylenedioxy-amphetamine alt was taken after the two hours observation period following its initial dosage.

Within twenty minutes, the systolic and diastolic blood pressure levels had increased by about 25 mm. The nose and throat became dry, and I became markedly subjectively attentive. A quality of jitteryness developed with some evidence muscular tremor, resembling that following a dosage of 1.0 mg. of epinephrine intramuscularly.

Forty-five minutes after the second dosage, an abundance of curling gray smoke rings was readily observed in the environment whenever a relaxed approach to subjective observation was used. Perceptually, these had complete reality. It seemed quite unnecessary to test their properties because it was at the same time surely known and fully appreciated that the source of the visual phenomena could not be external to the body. Concentration of attention on the details of the gray curling forms, by trying to note how they would be affected by passing a finger through their apparent field, caused them to melt away with the fixing of attention. Walking about required unusual concentration and was accompanied by undue subjective awareness of muscle movement detail and a feeling of postural unsteadiness. Muscle of the neck became markedly tensed periodically, with a tendency to close the jaws tightly and grind the rear teeth. Headache was not noted at any time. The gums about the teeth were notably contracted.

The pupils were markedly dilated and the clearness and excellence of observation of detail of things in view at a distance was noteworthy. No hallucinatory colors in any form were observed nor was there any notable changes in the observation of colors in the environment. There was some feeling of pressure alterations in the ears. Sound perceptions were most remarkably apparent and different simultaneous sounds were each clearly distinguished. Minor sounds, such as the scuffing of shoes from the walking of persons, even at great distances and in the presence of louder background sounds such as those of streetcars, were easily distinguishable. The distance at which a watch could be heard ticking was however only slightly further than the normal, observable on other days.

While sitting relaxed there was a generalized feeling of well-being. The forehead was cold and appeared pale to external observers and there was considerable perspiration for some hours. Breathing rate was slowed to around 10 per minute and frequently the breath was taken with a long deep inspiration followed by an audible expiration.

With regard to thinking it became apparent that long chains of thought were not persisted in. During well relaxed times the thinking became introspectively speculative. Subjective awareness of the body and its functionings became the subject of a detached spatial consideration. The place of detached observation for a time seemed clearly translocated out of the body to a place in the room to the above and right rearward. A couple of times it was compelling to turn my head and look into that corner of the room, in wonder at what part of one could be up there and thoughtfully observing the subjective situation and behavior of the body from that point.

An objective-subjective type of experiment was hit upon while observing the apparent duality of perceptions. In observing the finer changes in sensation at the finger tips by touching a table, it was noted that the perception of the contact of the finger tips to the table-top had unusual properties. The time of perception of finger-to-table contact by vision clearly preceded the time of perception from the mechanically active sensory touch ending of the finger tips.

The remarkable subjective changes continued with varying emphases for three to four hours. Time seem [sic] to pass slowly, when attention was directed at all toward its passing. No marked gastrointestinal malaise was noted, but there was less than usual interest in food at the noon and evening eating times. The usual tastes and comfort derived from eating were notably moderated. The pupils remained dilated for more than 12 hours. Sleep came readily soon after 16 hours, in part because of feeling tired from a very fully experienced full day.

The next morning I awoke early but without any feeling of unusual mental alertness or depression, with pupils normal in size and accommodating facility, feeling none the worse from the experience, but with new concepts of subjective reality that still clearly affect me.

Prior to the experience, I had never read any details of any drug induced or pathological hallucinatory phenomena. I have not had any particular desire to repeat a central nervous system experience at this level, unless it could be made to serve some useful ends.

Gordon Alles licensed MDA to Smith Kline and French, who evaluated it in several patient populations and, for a time, considered it as a potential antidepressant. Interested readers can click through to two documents from that era. First, Friedhoff and colleagues’ Preliminary study of a new anti-depressant drug and, second, Roberts and Alexander’s Report on Clinical Evaluation of SKF #5 (Amphedoxamine). As you can see on its final page, the Roberts and Alexander document (which was a 1957 Smith, Kline and French Internal Report) has quite the pedigree: it was sent to Alexander Shulgin by Ibrahim Turek, who worked at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center on clinical hallucinogen studies, including some with MDA. Both documents describe the ultimately unsuccessful attempts to figure out some use for MDA. Other researchers, including Richard Yensen and Claudio Naranjo, experimented with using MDA as an adjunct to psychotherapy, a possibility that seems to presage later work with MDMA.

In their research, Turek and colleagues used several self-report drug effects measures that are still in use today, including the Pahnke-Richards Mystical Experience Questionnaire. In one 1974 paper, they describe results of administering 75 mg R-MDA to 10 mostly-hallucinogen-experienced volunteers and, for comparison, give data collected when an unspecified dose of LSD was given to 10 participants. More recently, Roland Griffiths and colleagues (2006) —including Bill Richards, whom I take to be the Richards of the questionnaire and who had worked with Turek in the 1970s— used the same questionnaire when administering 30 mg/70 kg psilocybin to 30 hallucinogen-naive volunteers. They also used 40 mg/70 kg methylphenidate as an active placebo.

This gives us the opportunity to graph the mean ± SEM for each scale from both papers together. (The two papers report the questionnaire’s Unity scales differently, which prevents me from graphing them). There are, of course, all kinds of caveats about comparing single doses of drugs in different people in different labs. The exercise is necessarily heuristic; the conclusions tentative. Nonetheless:

People who received this dose of MDA seem to me to have a little less mystical an experience than those getting either of the two classical hallucinogens. Based on the ‘eyeball test’, it looks like scores for Transcendence of Time & Space were lower after MDA than the two classical hallucinogens. This scale includes items relating to loss of usual sense of space and time and feeling a if one is outside of history, space, and time.

Participants also seem to report greater Sacredness after Psilocybin, but we should keep in mind that these participants are a little different from those in the Turek et al. paper who received MDA and LSD. The Psilocybin group are hallucinogen-naive volunteers who all had at least intermittent participation in religious or spiritual activities. I would speculate that differences in the participants, more so than drug differences, contribute to this apparently greater Sacredness after Psilocybin administration.

Careful readers will have noticed that Turek et al.’s study used R-MDA. MDA has two enantiomers (mirror image versions of the molecule). The R-enantiomer used by Turek is believed to be the more hallucinogenic and active of the two versions. The few clinical MDA studies in the literature have tended to use the R-enantiomer. In contrast, clinical studies with MDMA (Ecstasy) and illicit MDA preparations use a racemic (half-and-half) mixture. This subtle but important point makes comparisons (such as this one) perilous.

As some sort of strange variant of Clarke’s third law, I have noticed that any sufficiently old science is indistinguishable from nonscience. If your reading takes you back far enough, experiments often seem to rely on opinions and you start to see references to ‘neurotics’ and other categories that are at best hard to interpret. Given this, I think it remarkable that we can usefully combine data published in 1974 and 2006. To me, the simple graph above is a tribute to and validation of all the work that has gone into the development of clinical psychopharmacology and experimental psychiatry. The science of consciousness cannot do without careful observation of the type Gordon Alles provided, but this experience must be quantified for science to progress.

4 Responses
  1. admin :

    Date: July 22, 2008 @ 3:38 pm

    The Alles quote was originally printed in his chapter in A Pharmacologic Approach to the Study of the Mind (ed. Featherstone and Simon), Charles C. Thomas, 1959. I’ll try to get the full chapter up if/when I can.

  2. Psychedelic Research » Blog Archive » September 8, 1976: Alexander ‘Sasha’ Shulgin begins self-experiments with MDMA :

    Date: September 8, 2008 @ 1:24 pm

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    Date: January 27, 2009 @ 1:26 am

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    [...] On July 16th 1969, Apollo 11 set off for the Moon. On July 16th 1930, , thirty-nine years earlier, humanity first encountered an MDMA-like drug as Gordon Alles began his self experiments with MDA. Even though it appears in several percent of illicit ‘ecstasy’ tablets, MDA has [...]

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