What are hallucinogens?
Hallucinogens are a diverse group of drugs that alter a person’s awareness of their surroundings as well as their own thoughts and feelings. They are commonly split into two categories: classic hallucinogens (such as LSD) and dissociative drugs (such as PCP). Both types of hallucinogens can cause hallucinations, or sensations and images that seem real though they are not. Additionally, dissociative drugs can cause users to feel out of control or disconnected from their body and environment.
Some hallucinogens are extracted from plants or mushrooms, and some are synthetic (human-made). Historically, people have used hallucinogens for religious or healing rituals. More recently, people report using these drugs for social or recreational purposes, including to have fun, deal with stress, have spiritual experiences, or just to feel different.
Common classic hallucinogens include the following:
LSD (D-lysergic acid diethylamide) is one of the most powerful mind-altering chemicals. It is a clear or white odorless material made from lysergic acid, which is found in a fungus that grows on rye and other grains. Psilocybin (4-phosphoryloxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine) comes from certain types of mushrooms found in tropical and subtropical regions of South America, Mexico, and the United States. Peyote (mescaline) is a small, spineless cactus with mescaline as its main ingredient. Peyote can also be synthetic. DMT (N,N-dimethyltryptamine) is a powerful chemical found naturally in some Amazonian plants. Ayahuasca is a tea made from such plants, and when taken in this form it is also known as hoasca, aya, and yagé. People can also make DMT in a lab. Synthetic DMT usually takes the form of a white crystalline powder that is smoked. 251-NBOMe is a synthetic hallucinogen with similarities both to LSD and MDMA (see DrugFacts: MDMA) but that is much more potent. Developed for use in brain research, when sold illegally it is sometimes called N Bomb or 251.
How do hallucinogens affect the brain?
Research suggests that classic hallucinogens work at least partially by temporarily disrupting communication between brain chemical systems throughout the brain and spinal cord. Some hallucinogens interfere with the action of the brain chemical serotonin, which regulates:
mood sensory perception sleep hunger body temperature sexual behavior intestinal muscle control
Dissociative hallucinogenic drugs interfere with the action of the brain chemical glutamate, which regulates:
pain perception responses to the environment emotion learning and memory
What are some other effects of hallucinogens?
Classic hallucinogens can cause users to see images, hear sounds, and feel sensations that seem real but do not exist. The effects generally begin within 20 to 90 minutes and can last as long as 12 hours in some cases (LSD) or as short as 15 minutes in others (synthetic DMT). Hallucinogen users refer to the experiences brought on by these drugs as “trips.” If the experience is unpleasant, users sometimes call it a “bad trip.”
Along with hallucinations, other short-term general effects include:
increased heart rate nausea intensified feelings and sensory experiences (such as seeing brighter colors) changes in sense of time (for example, the feeling that time is passing by slowly)
Specific short-term effects of some hallucinogens include:
increased blood pressure, breathing rate, or body temperature loss of appetite dry mouth sleep problems spiritual experiences feelings of relaxation uncoordinated movements excessive sweating panic paranoia—extreme and unreasonable distrust of others psychosis—disordered thinking detached from reality bizarre behaviors
Two long-term effects have been associated with use of classic hallucinogens, although these effects are rare.
Persistent Psychosis—a series of continuing mental problems, including: visual disturbances disorganized thinking paranoia mood changes Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder (HPPD)—recurrences of certain drug experiences, such as hallucinations or other visual disturbances. These flashbacks often happen without warning and may occur within a few days or more than a year after drug use. These symptoms are sometimes mistaken for other disorders, such as stroke or a brain tumor.
Both conditions are seen more often in people who have a history of mental illness, but they can happen to anyone, even after using hallucinogens one time. For HPDD, some antidepressant and antipsychotic medications can be used to improve mood and treat psychosis. Behavioral therapies can be used to help people cope with fear or confusion associated with visual disturbances.