Research on cocaine

One of Freud's most promising areas of research, which he conducted on his own time, had to do with a drug that had only recently been made available in Europe—cocaine. Although the effects of the coca plant had been known for quite some time, it was only in the 1880s that refined cocaine—the active ingredient in the coca leaf—became widely available in Europe. Freud was one of the first researchers to study the effects of cocaine on the mind and body. He used himself as the prime subject. The results of his earliest experiments— mostly subjective reports on how cocaine affected his own mood, wakefulness, and somatic symptoms—were published in July of 1884 in a paper called "Über Coca" ("On Coca"). His general assessment of the drug was that it might be useful not only in treating low mood but also in treating morphine addiction.

What Freud failed to emphasize sufficiently, however, was the anesthetic effect of cocaine on mucous membranes such as the nose and mouth. A colleague of his, Dr. Carl Koller, performed experiments that showed it could also be used to anesthetize the eye for the purposes of eye surgery. Since there was no other effective way to do this at the time, Kohler's discovery was a major one, and Freud deeply regretted not making the discovery himself.

After this disappointment, Freud continued his research with cocaine, eventually publishing two more papers. The first one was slightly more subdued in its praise than "Über Coca" had been, and the third one was even more skeptical. Freud frequently used cocaine himself to deal with minor aches and pains, and he recommended it enthusiastically to friends and acquaintances, even going as far as sending it to his fiancé, Martha Bernays, for her own use.

His enthusiasm for cocaine was sharply curtailed, however, by an ugly incident in 1885 in which he tried to treat a friend's morphine addiction by giving him cocaine. The friend, Ernst von Fleischl-Marxow, who had been one of Brücke's assistants while Freud was working in the same laboratory, abruptly gave up his morphine addiction and replaced it with a voracious appetite for cocaine. The incessant use of cocaine contributed to Fleischl-Marxow's death in 1891. The episode affected Freud deeply and soured him permanently on cocaine. Nonetheless, it appears from his correspondence with Wilhelm Fliess, a nose and throat specialist from Berlin and Freud's best friend and confidant during the 1890s, that Freud used cocaine occasionally, and sometimes heavily, through the mid-90s. After that time, however, he seems to have stopped using it entirely.

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