The Research of Psychedelics for Cluster Headache Treatment (Part 1)

Psychedelics for cluster headaches such as psilocybin mushrooms and LSD are becoming a well-known treatment for cluster headaches. These compounds are involved in past and ongoing clinical trials for headache disorders and mental health. City and state governments have decriminalized psilocybin mushrooms for personal or medical use in places across the United States.6

*This is part one of a two-part series discussing the history of psychedelic treatments for cluster headaches and how research and laws are changing the landscape of these potential therapies.

"War on Drugs" limited psychedelic research

The War on Drugs began in 1970 when Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act, placing psychedelics under "Schedule 1." Drugs in that classification have "no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse."6 But, a 1993 review of available evidence and literature on 20 substances found that oral psilocybin was the least addictive and lethal compound.3 

The War on Drugs not only hurt people living with mental health conditions, headache disorders, and people of color but the ability for researchers to study what psychedelics could do for many health conditions. Clinical trials switched to focus on therapies we use today, such as anti-depressants, mood stabilizers, anti-psychotics, and benzodiazepines. These pharmaceutical drugs may not work for up to half of patients who take them and come with a host of side effects, including increased suicidal thoughts.

Recent decriminalization in the United States allows patients with mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression to seek treatment with psilocybin mushrooms.6

An accidental discovery of psychedelic treatment for cluster headaches

In the late 1990s, the internet was still a new phenomenon. Clusterheads in 2020 have difficulty finding a treatment that works for their attacks. You can imagine that this was much worse 20 years ago. There were no social media platforms. But, there were Yahoo Forums.

When a Scottish man signed on to a Yahoo Forum for migraine disease and started sharing how a recreational dose of LSD (Lysergic Acid Diethylamide) seemed to help him skip an episodic cycle of cluster headaches, people didn't write off the idea.5 His accidental discovery provided hope for cluster headache patients in desperate need of pain relief.

Cluster headache patients began experimenting with psychedelics to see if it would help improve their condition. Psilocybin mushrooms were easier to access than LSD. This patient-led research quickly revealed that both substances could provide substantial relief from attacks. Bob Wold founded Clusterbusters in 2002 to help advance research on cluster headaches in this area and more.2

Harvard University agrees to study psychedelics for cluster headaches

Bob Wold and associates approached Harvard University about a clinical trial into cluster headaches and psychedelics. The prestigious institution was weary with the history of Dr. Timothy Leary. He studied psychedelics and served in the Department of Psychology at Harvard in the 1960s before the Controlled Substances Act. Ultimately, the Harvard Neurology Department agreed to help. Dr. Andrew Sewell published the results from Harvard's study in Neurology in June 2006. These results are from the 53 cluster headache patients included in the study:8

Published evidence for psilocybin mushrooms:

  • 22/26 patients reported psilocybin mushrooms aborted cluster headache attacks
  • 25/28 patients reported episodic cycles ended
  • 18/19 patients had longer remission periods between episodic cycles using psilocybin
  • Most of the patients stopped their prophylactic and abortive medications for five days before trying psilocybin (or LSD) and drank the mushrooms in tea or ate them whole.
  • 2 dosage methods were used and repeated every five days until cycles discontinued: Three doses of .5 grams taken throughout the day or one dose of 1.0-1.5 grams

Some patients took higher doses while others consumed less depending on how well it worked the first time or if they were apprehensive about using the treatment.

Published evidence for LSD:

  • 7/8 patients reported episodic cycles ended or had a preventive impact using LSD
  • 4/5 patients had longer remission periods between episodic cycles

Remission reriods and chronic patients in the Harvard study:

  • Some of the 53 patients involved were chronic. Psilocybin or LSD pushed them into remissions lasting 24 hours to 8 months. In some cases, they were no longer considered chronic.
  • 42% of the participants had effective relief with these substances taking sub-hallucinogenic doses. They reported brighter colors and "mildly altered" consciousness.

Why do psychedelics work for cluster headaches?

Medications used to treat cluster headaches such as DHE and sumatriptan contain similar chemical structures to LSD and psilocybin. That is one theory as to why they work effectively to reduce or stop attacks.2 These substances also reduce brain activity in the hypothalamus, a small brain area responsible for circadian biology, autonomic function, and endocrine systems. There is hypothalamic dysfunction in cluster headache patients who are chronic or in cycle.7

Psychedelics for headache disorders are not a new discovery. A 1963 study evaluated sub-hallucinogenic doses of LSD in 390 patients with headache. The research found LSD could prevent migraine attacks successfully. There were 25 patients with cluster headaches involved, but the published study didn't state the impact of LSD on the condition.8

Learn more in The Research of Psychedelics for Cluster Headaches (Part 2) (coming soon!).

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