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This Is Your Brain On LSD

This is to neuroscience what the Higgs boson was to particle physics.

That’s David Nutt describing the first brain scans ever taken of persons under the influence of LSD (Lysergic acid diethylamide), the controversial psychedelic drug. Nutt is the British psychiatrist and neuropsychopharmacologist who was chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), the British government’s chief drug advisor, before being dismissed for claiming that alcohol and tobacco were more harmful than many illegal drugs, including LSD, ecstasy and marijuana.

In a study funded by a crowdfunding campaign and The Beckley Foundation (a charitable trust promoting drug research), Nutt and Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris, from the Department of Medicine at Imperial College London, gave 20 physically and mentally healthy volunteers injections of 75mcg of LSD on one day and a placebo on another. They then monitored their brain blood flow, functional connections within and between brain networks, and brainwaves using arterial spin labelling, resting state MRI and magnetoencephalography – three brain imaging techniques.

The brains were more active under LSD than under the placebo

The brains were more active under LSD than under the placebo

According to their study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the brain scans showed what happened when those who had been given LSD were “seeing with their eyes shut” – the description Dr. Carhart-Harris used for hallucinating.

We saw that many more areas of the brain than normal were contributing to visual processing under LSD — even though the volunteers’ eyes were closed. Furthermore, the size of this effect correlated with volunteers’ ratings of complex, dreamlike visions.

The brain scans also illustrated what happens when a person under the influence of LSD perceives an altered state of consciousness that is often described as the ego breaking down. While a normal brain has independent networks performing isolated tasks such as hearing and seeing, the brain under LSD shows these independent areas dissolving to form a more integrated brain. Dr. Carhart-Harris relates it to what users have said after their LSD experience.

… the normal sense of self is broken down and replaced by a sense of reconnection with themselves, others and the natural world. This experience is sometimes framed in a religious or spiritual way — and seems to be associated with improvements in well-being after the drug’s effects have subsided.

This is a controversial study by a controversial researcher. Will it be pushed aside like so many past studies on LSD or will it pave the way for psychedelic drugs to be used to treat psychiatric disorders, depression or addictions? Amanda Feilding, director of the Beckley Foundation, has hopes for the latter:

We are finally unveiling the brain mechanisms underlying the potential of LSD, not only to heal, but also to deepen our understanding of consciousness itself.