I can only imagine the look on my high school guidance counselor’s face if I told her PCP may be the psychedelic of the future. Heck, I can imagine the look on your face just reading that sentence.
If you grew up in the US in the last few decades, the first place you probably heard of PCP was in a DARE course, a program in schools that essentially put forth the narrative that “all drugs are bad” and which was defunded in 1998 because, well, it didn’t work. DARE, and the media more broadly, characterized PCP as the substance that makes people into violent maniacs capable of picking up cars, leaping out of buildings, and immediately running away like some Marvel supervillain.
In fact, the idea of PCP is so embedded in culture that when we want to express that something is ‘intense’ and ‘over the top,’ a colloquial equivalent is ‘it’s on PCP.’ Gamers even describe epic gameplay runs as ‘…it’s on PCP.’ It seems that PCP has become the cultural measurement of how amped up something is. The stigma PCP holds is deep, but it’s not warranted—and, perhaps, we’ve all been lied to.
The History of PCP
The history of PCP in America is yet to be written, and don’t expect me to write it here. However, we can look back at how government programs and news media treated the substance PCP from the seventies to nineties.
In short, lots of fear was stoked around PCP—specifically in 1977 when Mike Wallace of 60 minutes told a national audience that PCP was only ‘second to heroin as the most dangerous drug.’ This single 60 Minutes special report has shaped the attitude of mainstream America towards PCP ever since. Just to wrap your head around the sheer cultural force that one report like this could have, in the late seventies, 60 Minutes, the show, was getting an astronomical Nielsen rating of 29.6, which meant 45 percent of all TVs turned on in the country were tuned into the program.
In the program, Dr. R. Stanley Burns claimed children as young as nine-years-old were ‘pooling quarters together’ in order to afford to buy PCP and ‘smoking it at recess.’ Burns also stated there was no ‘guarantee someone won’t have irreversible damage’ like ‘bizarre thinking’ and ‘difficulty with memory’ if they did it. Even looking at his own work at the time (which was based mostly on case studies and second-hand reports), the fatalities associated with PCP were usually accidental (like falling to one’s death) and associated with other substances in the body. While it’s easy to blame Burns, reports like this were just the current state of psychedelic science in the seventies and eighties—and it stayed like that for decades.
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The concept of ‘smoking shern,’ which is dipping a joint in embalming fluid, is often conflated with the psychedelic PCP. Those aren’t the same—the ingredients of embalming fluid usually consist of the chemicals glutaraldehyde, methanol, and formaldehyde. Sometimes the embalming fluid is used as a solvent for PCP—but only at rural make-shift laboratories. This results in a weird blend of PCP and a toxic grab bag of other chemicals, which most likely contributes to the horror stories your friend’s friend always loved telling at college frat parties.
Throw Away the PCP, Throw Away the ‘Angel Dust:’ Take the Phencyclidine
Let’s take the edge off PCP by stopping calling it PCP or its dodgy moniker, ‘angel dust.’ We’re talking about the psychedelic ‘phencyclidine,’ and it’s considered an NMDA antagonist—just like ketamine. Unlike the classic psychedelics like LSD, ayahuasca, psilocybin, and others, which are serotonergic agonists, phencyclidine’s psychedelic effect doesn’t work with serotonin. Instead of being drawn towards serotonin receptors like those previously mentioned psychedelics, phencyclidine and ketamine work as an NMDA antagonist. Essentially its psychoactive effects are dependent on the blockage of NMDA receptors. The restriction of ions going into the NMDA receptor is what gives phencyclidine and ketamine its psychedelic effects.
There’s another unique thing about phencyclidine compared to other psychedelics. It (along with ketamine) interact with voltage to exert its psychedelic effects. NMDA receptors are not only chemically-gated (through two ligands) but they also use voltage to open and close its receptors. All other psychedelics (aside from ketamine and any other NMDA antagonists) are strictly modulated by chemicals. I’ll spare you a line about phencyclidine being ‘electric’ because that’s an enormous amount of cheese that I can’t handle today—and neither can you. Let’s go a bit deeper.
Phencyclidine in the Brain
There’s still a lot we don’t know, but phencyclidine seems to modulate the connection the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) has with an area called the nucleus accumbens, a region of the brain associated with feeding, sexual reward and, drug use. The medial prefrontal cortex is a hotspot in psychedelic science. It’s an area of the brain located at the front of your skull, just above the eye region. There’s evidence, or data, showing that neuronal atrophy to the medial prefrontal cortex corresponds with the subjective feelings of depression, anxiety, PTSD, and even addiction. Science recently discovered that when taking a psychedelic, these neurons go through spinogenesis, which means the rebuilding and strengthening of dendritic spines within the medial prefrontal cortex. This rebuilding of dendrites in the mPFC also corresponds with people feeling less depressed and anxious. Meanwhile, most maladaptive behaviors like rumination and PTSD are decreased.
Psychedelics do this thing in the brain by alienating familiar areas of the brain that are filled with neurons that communicate with each other, while simultaneously increasing neuronal connection with other areas of the brain that usually don’t connect. In more scientific terms, functional connectivity within local brain networks decreases while simultaneously increasing the connection with other networks that normally are segregated. This neurological scenario happens with NMDA antagonists (like PCP) and 5-HT-receptor agonists (classic psychedelics). With our very limited understanding of the way psychedelics enact their therapeutic subjective effects, the neuromechanisms behind phencyclidine appear to be similar to ketamine—but phencyclidine may have other properties, like reducing nicotine craving, too.
Smoke PCP to Curb Nicotine Addiction?
PCP may help you kick your cigarette habit. Imagine that Superbowl commercial.
So how may phencyclidine reduce nicotine cravings?
Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter, just like how serotonin is a neurotransmitter—but it has a completely different purpose in the body. Every voluntary muscle movement you’ve ever made was the result of acetylcholine flowing from neuromuscular junctions and interacting with nicotinic receptors at the motor end plate of your muscle.
Yes, nicotinic as in ‘nicotine receptors.’ Your body is filled with nicotine receptors that are specifically designed to handle nicotine and other tobacco-like plant alkaloids. Humans are evolutionarily adapted to process nicotine, regardless of if you’ve picked up a cigarette in your life. It’s also why it’s so damn hard to quit cigarettes. When acetylcholine flows to nicotinic receptors in your body, it’s usually accompanied by a release of the dopamine neurotransmitter.
Undoubtedly you’ve heard of dopamine—its release in the body is responsible for a multitude of neurological processes, like reward-motivated behavior, memory, and learning. All dopamine released in your body comes from nucleus accumbens. In addition to drug dependence, dopamine release has been seen in people with dependence on things like online gambling and competitive gaming. It’s theorized that this dopamine release—combined with the neurotransmitter acetylcholine—contributes to nicotine addiction, along with the body high that cigarette smokers so casually crave.
A 2020 study in UCLA by Ersin Yavas found that phencyclidine has the ability to reduce dopamine release from nicotine, especially when nicotine is applied or used at high doses. These changes within the brain weren’t seen just during the dose, but at least a week after the initial dose of phencyclidine. This shows that phencyclidine’s ability to inhibit dopamine release is persistent and results in long–term changes that facilitate this decrease in dopamine release from nicotine. It’s also important to note dysregulation in dopamine systems are also responsible for conditions like schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease—so there’s still lots of potential scientific investigation into PCP’s role in decreasing nicotine cravings and the effects of nicotine in the body.
Phencyclidine to Manage Pain
There’s also evidence that PCP may manage pain and even delay the effects of trauma, which is mind-blowing stuff. It’s also important to note that LSD has shown promise for pain, too. In a 2020 study by Maastricht University, led by Jan Rameakers, people received either 5, 10, or 20 micrograms of LSD and then were asked to submerge their hand in ice-cold water for as long as they could. In this study, Jan Ramamkers found that people who took the 20 microgram dose (above the threshold of a microdose amount) had a significantly higher pain threshold and could withstand cold water temperatures of 3 degrees celsius or about 37 degrees Fahrenheit. The LSD also decreased how they experienced pain and unpleasantness—not unlike PCP.
However, with PCP, it’s important to note that every clinical study of the psychedelic has been done on rodents. There are case studies of people doing PCP, which is someone witnessing a person’s PCP trip or listening to a recount of their experience. Normally in neuroscience, much is inferred from animal model studies translating to humans—but animal model studies do have their limitations, and PCP’s ability to decrease pain or nicotine cravings has never been directly studied on humans.
Let’s Research Phencyclidine
There’s a lot of good research to be done on PCP. As with all psychedelics, this research is wholly dependent on our cultural acceptance of PCP. Let’s face it, no foundation or government is giving research dollars to something that has been the butt of jokes for the past forty to fifty years. We did it to ourselves, but we can undo this ignorance by researching novel psychedelics like phencyclidine and reading well-articulated articles about them.
Also, I’m not implying that you should rush to your local trap house and get a dose of PCP. Honestly, I don’t care what you do to your body—it’s of no concern to me actually. What I do care about is the neuroscience behind phencyclidine—and, admittedly, we haven’t even scratched the surface of our understanding of this substance.