Mind games: a research volunteer is prepared for scanning
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Mapping the psychedelic brain: how LSD is making a comeback

Can drugs help depression? Crowdfunding allows science researchers to bypass institutional reservations and study taboo subjects.

More than 40 years after its prohibition by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, LSD is making a comeback. Earlier this month came an announcement from Professor David Nutt that the first-ever brain-scanning study into the psychedelic drug had successfully taken place – and that he and his colleagues, Robin Carhart-Harris of Imperial College London and the drugs policy reformer Amanda Feilding of the Beckley Foundation, were seeking to crowd-fund £25,000 from the public in order to process the results. They met their target within 36 hours.

As much as science aims at dispassionate objectivity, there are some areas – recreational drugs being one – in which ignoring the political context is impossible. For example, Nutt is best known for his time as chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, a role from which he was dismissed by the then home secretary, Alan Johnson, when he argued that the risks of using ecstasy were about the same as riding a horse. Plus, there is institutional disquiet from the bodies that usually fund scientific research when it comes to Class A substances. Crowd-funding is one way to break the cycle. And yet, speaking to Carhart-Harris a few months ago, just as the trial was getting under way, I learned that other studies may be coming soon. There is “a snowball that’s been gaining size” in psychedelics research, he said. “It’s only now that it’s visible to people.”

It turns out that the big, notorious drugs of years past – particularly LSD and psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) but also MDMA (ecstasy) and ketamine – have shown extraordinary promise in the few early trials that have gone ahead. Single, small doses of these drugs appear to alleviate anxiety and depression, even in severe cases, for long periods of time. Researchers in the US and Switzerland performed basic trials in the 1990s but it is only in the past decade that the “stigma” surrounding these drugs has started to fade.

“There’s a generation now where many more [scientists] have personal experience with recreational drugs,” Carhart-Harris says. “That’s one reason why I’m optimistic . . . The potential application of psychedelics to deal with anxiety around dying is substantial.” He tells me that one study of 12 patients found that depression scores were “significantly reduced six months after a single experience”. Post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans could be alleviated by MDMA, while ketamine has proved effective in treating depression – though it is highly toxic.

This most recent study involved giving participants small doses of LSD and scanning them with fMRI and MEG machines to understand which parts of the brain were affected by the drug. “It’s the obvious first question but it’s the biggest, one that’s never been addressed by a modern imaging study,” he adds.

Every drugs study has to be designed to satisfy ethics committees, something that is complicated by the “alarmist” rhetoric that clings to psychedelics. Even more of a challenge is that scientists can’t use any old LSD bought from a dealer – it must be medicinal grade in purity and sterility, which entails paying bespoke pharmaceutical labs to mix up a batch. “Some people quote hundreds of thousands of pounds, close to half a million, for one study [of] 72 people,” Carhart-Harris says. By comparison, getting a licence from the Home Office to work with scheduled drugs is easy.

At the time of writing, the fundraiser is £6,000 off a new £50,000 stretch goal – to explore possible links between LSD and enhanced creativity. Yes, there’s an opportunity for people to volunteer as participants at the next stage.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, British politics is broken

Photo: Getty
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As crime moves online, the police need the investment in technology to follow

Technology offers solutions, not just threats.

It’s perhaps inevitable that as the world becomes more digital, so does crime. This week Alison Saunders, director of public prosecutions, recognised that online crime is as serious as face-to-face crime. “Hate is hate,” Saunders wrote referring to internet abuse, and the police should protect people from it wherever they are. This will add demand to under-pressure police forces. And it is only the tip of the iceberg. 

Forty-seven per cent of crime involves an online element. Police recorded 30,000 instances of online stalking and harassment last year. People are 20 times more likely to be a victim of fraud than robbery, costing businesses an estimated £144bn a year. On a conservative estimate, 2,500 UK citizens use the anonymous dark web browser, Tor, for illegal purposes such as drug dealing, revenge porn and child sexual exploitation.

The police need new technology to meet demand, a Reform report published today finds. Some progress has been made in recent years. West Midlands Police uses an online portal for people to report incidents. Durham uses evidence-gathering software to collect social media information on suspects, and then instantly compile a report that can be shared with courts. Police have benefited from smartphones to share information, and body-worn cameras, which have reduced complaints against police by 93 per cent.

Yet, Theresa May’s 2016 remarks that police use “technology that lags woefully behind what they use as consumers” still stand. Officers interviewed for Reform’s research implored: “Give us the tools to do our job”.

Online evidence portals should be upgraded to accept CCTV footage. Apps should be developed to allow officers to learn about new digital threats, following the US army’s library of knowledge-sharing apps. Augmented-reality glasses are being used in the Netherlands to help officers identify evidence at digital crime scenes. Officers would save a trip back to the station if they could collect fingerprints on smartphones and statements on body-worn cameras.

New technology requires investment, but forces are reducing the resources put into IT as reserves have dried up. Durham plans to cut spend by 60 per cent between 2015-16 and 2019-20. The government should help fund equipment which can meet demand and return future productivity savings. If the Home Office invested the same as the Department of Health, another department pushing “transformative” technology, it would invest an extra £450m a year. This funding should come from administrative savings delivered through accelerating the Government’s automation agenda, which the think tank Reform has previously calculated would save Whitehall £2.6bn a year.

As crime moves online, police must follow. Saunders is right to point to the importance of meeting it. But technology offers solutions, not just threats. Installing the next generation of equipment will give police the tools to do their jobs, addressing online hate and more. 

Alexander Hitchcock is a senior researcher at reform