Hallucinogens are a class of drugs that affects the brain and alters perceptions and mood. Human beings have used hallucinogens for centuries, primarily in ancient cultural and religious ceremonies. As a part of their religion, forexample, certain American Indian tribes used the hallucinogen peyote to experience "spiritual visions."

Unlike most other drug classifications, hallucinogens are grouped primarily by causing hallucinations (which comes from Latin meaning "to wander in the mind"). Hallucinogens may be synthetic (man made) or organic (occurring in nature, such as certain plants). Organic hallucinogens include mescaline, peyote,and various fungi (certain mushrooms). Synthetic hallucinogens first appeared in 1938 when German chemist Albert Hoffman created a derivative of lysergicacid (LSD) in the laboratory. Scientists largely ignored the discovery untilmedical researchers in the 1950s began investigating LSD's possible therapeutic use for treating some psychiatric disorders.

In the 1960s, with the youth counterculture movement, the "hippie" movement,more and more people began experimenting with LSD to experience its mind altering effects. Sometimes referred to as "psychedelics," both natural and synthetic hallucinogens went on to influence many aspects of American pop culture,including clothing, music, art, and language.

As the use of LSD and other hallucinogens became more widespread and some oftheir dangers known, the United States and other countries made hallucinogensillegal.

Although not considered psychologically or physically addictive like heroin,alcohol, and tobacco, hallucinogens have many unexpected and serious effects.For example, although hallucinogens are often taken to feel good, some people can have unpleasant experiences, sometimes referred to as "bad trips." These psychological experiences are largely associated with moods and can includefear, paranoia, confusion, and behavior similar to schizophrenia. Dependingon the hallucinogen and the amount taken, immediate physical effects can include an elevated heart rate and increased blood pressure. Some long-time usershave shown damage to the brain resulting in impaired memory, inability to concentrate, mental confusion, and difficulty with abstract thinking. Some users also experience "flashbacks," in which they may re-experience some hallucinogenic effects days or months after taking the drug.

Another danger associated with synthetic hallucinogens is that it is impossible to know what ingredients have been used to make them because they are notregulated or distributed by a pharmacist. As a result, more serious side effects may occur, such as convulsions, coma, and heart or lung failure. Since hallucinogens affect the senses and impair motor skills, they can also result in serious and even fatal accidents, like car accidents, drownings, burns, and falls.

Hallucinogens work by disrupting the brain's chemical communication system. The brain controls thoughts and sends messages throughout the body by transmitting chemicals from nerve cell to nerve cell, both in the brain and the body.Called neurons, these nerve cells communicate with each other through chemical messengers called neurotransmitters. Exactly how hallucinogens affect neurons and neurotransmitters has not been clearly defined. Many hallucinogens, however, are believed to affect a neurotransmitter called serotonin, which plays a large role in sensory information and emotions. The synthetic hallucinogen MDMA (methylenedioxymethamphetamine), for example, can damage or destroy neurons that contain serotonin.

The illegal use of hallucinogens peaked in the United States in the late 1970s, and their use declined throughout the 1980s. However, surveys showed thathallucinogen use rose again during the 1990s, especially among young adults.Many of these hallucinogens are relatively new synthetics and are referred toas "designer" drugs, such as MDMA, sometimes called Ecstasy. Since these drugs are often made by combining an hallucinogen with some other drug, such asmethamphetamine (or "speed"), they can have dangerous side effects, sometimeseven resulting in death. People caught using and/or selling hallucinogens can be arrested and sent to prison. Certain religious groups, however, especially among American Indians, may still use hallucinogens in their ceremonies.

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