The discovery two years ago that the brain produces its own morphine-like substance to alter Psychic states has touched off an extraordinary, intense search for new drugs that in the next decade may radically change human behavior.
"You name the psychic state you want and I can put you there," says Dr. Arnold Mandell, chairman of the psychiatry department at the University of California, San Diego.
Research on psychotropic - mood-altering - drugs has advanced so far that Dr. William Bunney of the National Institute of Mental Health can say:
"The Brave New World is something that's subtlely and slowly emerging. We're already into aspects of it. We now have ways to alleviate distress with drugs that have specific effects on brain functioning."
What are those effects? Dr. Nathan Kline, a New York psychiatrist and respected director of clinical research at the Orangeburg State Hospital, sees vast possibilities: drugs to expand the childhood sense of curiosity and learning and cut short the turbulence of adolescence; drugs to reduce the psychological need for sleep; drugs to provide a safe, short-acting degree of intoxication; drugs to regulate sexual response; drugs to prolong or shorten memory; drugs to provoke or relieve guilt; drugs to deepen our awareness of beauty and our sense of awe.
More broadly, Mandell says, "The futurology of psychotropic drugs deals with a modification of world views. Culture, personality and brain chemistry are really the same. They're just different ways of viewing things through different academic disciplines. The equivalent of religion and political systems is tied up in these drugs. We're talking about a real threat to the herd. We're not that far off from having someone say, 'This is a place that feels good to me' and - PRESTO - one pill and he's there." A Threatening Utopia?
The Orwellian world this conjures up is obviously threatening to many.
"You have to remember, though," says Ted Gordon, director of a think tank called the Futurist Group in Glastonbury, Conn., that when anesthesia was introduced, people thought that it was unethical to eliminate pain. Anesthesia was psychotropic drugs force people to redefine their values, and consequently raise a lot of unanswerable questions. You can take these things and put them into any context you want. It's a two sided sword, very sharp on both sides. There's a totalitarian world - very frightening - and a benevolent world - that offers the best to all people."
The Food and Drug Administration has a number of Psychotropic drugs under investigation and so is forbidden by law to discuss them specifically. But Wayne Pines, deputy assistant commissioner, made these points:
No existing law prohibits the development of drugs that might stimulate the learning process or improve sexual response: recreational drugs, in short.
No experimenting on human patients can begin, however, until the FDA approves an IND, or investigational new drug application.
The long-term side effects of the new psychiatric drugs are, of course, moot. And these are a basic concern of all FDA investigations.
Pines says, "We'd balance out the benefit of the drug to the patient against the risks - and how long it would be taken for a lifetime or three weeks. We require animal studies first."
Because FDA process is long and thorough, the agency may not be heard from for some time on the new psychotropic drugs.
Dr. Alexander Shulgin, an independent drug designer in San Franciso who works with Mandell, is concerned with this balancing of risks and benefits.
"We really don't know exactly where we're headed in our research," he says. "Let's imagine that a person comes home from a hard day at the office and he needs two double martinis to calm down. And then he falls asleep or gets belligerent. Now, I could give him a drug that would produce the same euphoria that two double martinis do, with none of the bad side effects. He could even get in his car and drive like a perfectly sober person . . .
"Of course, I'm not sure that would be a panacea. If you had a society filled with extremely happy people it might not be that happy."
This all may sound a bit like the utopian dreams promised over a decade ago by Timothy Leary when he offered LSD to an already-confused era. The fact is, science has actually out-paced popular notions about drugs. And the scientist involved are respected leaders at major universities.
"A number of extraordinarily important discoveries have been made recently," says Dr. Stanislaw Grof, now at Esalen Institute, and a pioneer in legitimate LSD research at the Spring Grove medical center in Maryland. "We were merely on the brink 10 years ago."
Most remarkably, recent research have reveal that certain substances act only on highly specific receptors in the brain. The metaphor most often heard is of a lock and key. While certain drugs may come into contact with almost all of the brain's nerve endings, they act on only one specific group of receptors. Pain, pleasure, fatigue, creativity and memory each appear to be tied to specific receptors, and new drugs are being developed to interact with these individual area without unusual side effects. Accelerating Learning
The brain receives messages from various sensors and in turn keys behavior in other sets of cells. The brain cells talk to each other chemically, and drugs can change this signaling process.
"What we're learning now," says Gary Lynch, a neurobiologist at the University of California, Irvine, "is now the circuitry can change. Consequently, we can develop new drugs that are aimed at particular ways to reorganize the circuits."
Earlier this year, Drs. Larry Stein and James Belluzzi of Philadelphia's Wyeth Drug Company found that injections of enkephaline - the morphine-like substance produced by the brain - speed up the learning process in rats. Test animals receiving the drug learned to avoid a shock plate more quickly than ones who didn't.
The implications are simultaneously ominous and exhilarating. If enkephaline can accelerate learning, how far off is the day when students will receive shots of the drug and walk away with a BA in a year or less?
"It's not as farfetched as it seems," says Dr. Floyd Bloom of the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif. "The human brain is terribly enexercised, and it certainly doesn't come with an instruction manual. To some people there's something mischievous about using a drug to make your brain work better. Yet learning these things makes it suggestive that eventually we will be able to turn off and turn on certain behavior. If we have a drug that can turn on memory, so to speak, we'll probably turn it right on."
The frontiers of psychotropic drug research were opened four years ago when three teams of researchers around the world - including one led by Dr. Solomom Snyder at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore - independently discovered that the brain contains receptors activated only by brain-created substances - enkephalines and endorphines - that are chemically analogous to morhpine. Enhancing Creative states
More research revealed that the brain also creates its own amphetamines (dopamine), transquilizers (serotonin), cocaine (norephinephrine) and hallucinogens (dimethyltrypatamine). A few months ago a Danish research team reported the discovery of Valium receptors in the brain, although no one yet has determined whether the brain creates its own equivalent of Valium.
In New York this spring, schizophrenic patients ceased hearing imaginary vocies after receiving shots of beta-endorphine. At the University of California, San Diego, students were able to write more creatively - that is, with fresh insight - after receiving a compound created by Dr. Shulgin. In Tokyo, the brain cells of the elderly have been rejuvenated with injections of 1-dopa, something demonstrated earlier this year with rat experiments done by the late Dr, George Cotzias in New York. At the University of Texas, in Dallas, sexual potency in impotent males has been restored with pills derived from a brain peptide. Other brain-peptide-related drugs have induced dream-filled sleeping states.
The scientific and philosphical ramifications of psychotropic drug research are staggering.
"For some people," says Mary Carol Newman, who is investigating chemical ways to short-circuit heroin addition, "it means: 'God always wanted us to get stoned.'" For Mandell, "This almost means that the next God who comes to earth is going to have to bring chemicals with him." For Bloom, "A lot that passes for mythological portent - things like people saying 'He's got bad blood' - are probably going to turn out to have a great deal of biological basis.
On the religious plane, Dr. Roland Fischer of Maryland's Spring Grove research center suggests that "normality, creativity, mystical states and schizophrenia, though seemingly disparate, actually lie along a continuum. Thus, he indicates, new drugs designed for use in pathology may enhance spiritual and creative states. A Reduction in Glory?
Mandell thinks that science will easily be able to induce "any of the levels of William James' religious experience." He is wary, however about the prospect of heightened creativity sweeping the nation, as pictured by a philospher:
"Let's imagine," says Paul Weiss, Heffer Professor of philosopphy at Catholic University, "that we did have a creativity drug that could turn me into Michelangelo. Then we'd have a higher level of civilization: great painting, great symphonies. It would mean a concomitant reduction in glory. We don't quote all gifted playwrights the way we do Shakespeare. I doubt we could do something like eliminate war, but these drugs might add a new qualitative totality to life."
"How much do we want to unleash creativity? If 99 per cent of the country were creative, who would pick up the garbage?"
For a military, psychotropic drugs promise new modes of warfare foreshadowed when Hitler's Panzer divisions used high doses of amphetamines to indused rage. The U.S. Army stockpiled LSD in hopes of mentally debilitating the enemy. Another drug, BZ, has been shown to induce maniacal behavior, and it too is now contained in some bombs.
The effect of all these developments on the medical establishment has yet to be assessed.
"All this research," comments Dr. Kline, "has probably set psychiatry back a hundred years."
Kline, working with Dr. Heinz Lehmann, who introduced the tranquilizer Thorazine to this country, has treated 15 human patients with beta-endorphine.
"We covered nine different diagnostic categories," Kline says, "and it's worked on six of them. Schizophrenic patients stopped hearing voices. Depressed patients smiled for the first time in years. If this same substance works in so many disorders, that's a problem for psychiatry. We have all these wonderful names for varieties of mental illness: Maybe they've all just become antiquated." Just Like Vitamins?
"A lot of this stuff is so far out," says Mandell, "that the FDA doesn't even know it exists. And there are ways to test things and even fet them on the market for one reason . . . For instance, the tricyclics, antidepressants . . .These were marketed to combat depression. But one of their side effects is to reduce separation fear. Kid won't go to school? Give him this. No more panic in the stomach.
"The FDA is very careful not interfere with medical practice," says Kline. "The big question is going to be determining whether the FDA - indeed, whether the medical profession - should have any say in how normal people decide to augment their brain functions. The pharmaceutical industry is stupid in only treating pathology. Why not drugs for normal people? I just got off on a sideline with beta-endorphine. Why not a memory drug? And why not sell it over the counter? Why shouldn't people take memory pills just like vitamins?"