Psychedelics as medicine against cluster headache

Cluster headache can cause severe agony: to such an extent that some patients suffering from the disease see no other solution than ending their life. That is why it is sometimes called the suicide headache. The pain of an attack is described to be more violent than the amputation of a limb without anaesthesia. Therefore it seems logical that the quest for a good medicine is urgent.

At the moment there are different regular medications for sale which make the life of cluster headache patients more bearable. The disadvantage is that all of those drugs cause severe side-effects. Furthermore none of the pharmaceutical solutions can take away the pain completely: they only alleviate it, which means most patients still suffer immensely.

Luckily there is good news: it turns out there is a treatment that is safe, works in most patients, and of which the effects persist for months, even after one single dose. It might sound unbelievable, but many cluster headache patients treat themselves successfully with psychedelics.

In order to prove the effects of psychedelics, researcher Andrew Sewell conducted a pilot study in 2006. 53 cluster headache patients took psilocybin or LSD. The results were remarkable: with 84% of the psilocybin-users and 88% of the LSD-users an attack stopped completely. This is very remarkable, as no other medicine showed similar effects. Furthermore about 80% of the patients stayed pain-free for months after one single dose. How it is possible that one single dose can prevent attacks for months is still unclear, but the research elicited hope on a pain-free life for many cluster headache patients.

Based on his first study Andrew Sewell conducted a more elaborate research in 2008. This time he investigated whether LSA has a similar effect. LSA is (amongst others) found in the seeds of Hawaiian baby woodrose and Morning glory. Like LSD it has a consciousness expanding effect. 367 cluster headache patients participated in this study. Again the results were remarkable. Of all participants 56% responded positively to LSA. Furthermore it became clear that the dosage level on which LSA works is very low. It is sufficiently low that there occur no to barely any consciousness expanding effect. So, if cluster headache patients want to experience the beneficial effect of psychedelics, they do not necessarily have to trip, which in some cases is desirable.

Based on Sewell’s results a new study was started in 2010, this time guided by Matthias Karst and John Halpern. In the course of this research the substance BOL-148 was used. The substance is derived from LSD, but has no consciousness expanding effect whatsoever. The drug was administered to four patients with chronic cluster headaches; three of them were pain-free for months. The other participant experienced a large improvement.

Maybe you now think: ‘there exists a potential effective treatment for cluster headache patients: they must be investigating this thoroughly.’ Unfortunately things are a bit more complicated. Despite the fact that BOL-148 has no hallucinogenic effect at all, and there are no indications that the drug will be toxic in low dosages, its use is not approved by the FDA. It is a mystery why the substance is prohibited, but the status quo makes it very complicated to start a larger research project into the beneficial effects of BOL-148.

This is a very complicated situation. For a large amount of cluster headache patients (a very low dose of) psychedelics is their last resort, but they are not allowed to take it. In the Netherlands the law is not too strict, and many patients treat themselves successfully with psychedelics. In the United States the situation is different: you can end up in jail when caught using LSD. This holds for cluster headache patients as well. The fact those people have no choice but suffer, only for reasons of legislation, is of course ridiculous.

The organization Clusterbuster fights against this form of injustice. Furthermore it's desirable that organizations like MAPS and OPEN foundation continue their projects. These organizations support and promote research into psychedelics. Obviously they are familiar with the potential beneficial effects of LSD, LSA and psilocybin and they are committed to making future research possible.