Chemist David Nichols Haunted by Discovery’s Deadly Misuse

The following is an excerpt. The full article is available at As a boy growing up in Covington, Ky., David Nichols played with chemistry sets instead of footballs. By high school, the self-professed “science geek” who made stink bombs for fun recognized his flair for formulas and decided to become a chemist. Little did he know that the profession that brought him so much happiness would leave him haunted, as drugs he discovered would be misused, causing harm, and even death. When he started studying for his doctorate in 1969 — two years after the summer of love — Nichols was interested in how drugs, such as LSD, acted on the brain. “It occurred to me: People can take these drugs, and in some people the effects last a moment, but in others it permanently changes them in some way,” Nichols said. Some LSD users have claimed to reach states of superior consciousness and even see God. But others have suffered “bad trips,” and even developed permanent psychosis, Nichols said. “If drugs can change people’s perspectives on the world or who they are, they must work in a very fundamental way in the brain,” Nichols said. In the 1980s, Nichols got a research grant to study 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) — a drug commonly known as ecstasy. At the time, MDMA was being used in psychotherapy. “When it became clear that it was going to become a controlled substance, I thought maybe we could figure it out how it worked and develop a safe version to allow psychiatrists to continue using it,” Nichols said.

Chemist David Nichols, Ph.D., one of the most avid and successful advocates of psychedelics like LSD and MDMA as tools for exploring the inner workings of the human brain, is worried that some of the drugs that he manufactures for use in the laboratory are escaping into recreational settings, especially MDMA analogue MTA. This is a valid concern, and emphasizes the need for honest education about the risks and benefits of drugs that are being used in the lab and the clinic and to choose the drugs that are used in therapy very carefully. MAPS is not currently sponsoring research on MTA.