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

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Will Britain end up agreeing a lengthy transition deal with the EU?

It's those seeking to prevent a referendum re-run who have the most to fear from a bungled exit.

You can check out, but you'll never leave? Today's papers all cover the growing momentum behind a transition arrangement after Britain leaves the European Union, whereby the United Kingdom remains in the single market and customs union.

The FT reports on the first meeting between Theresa May and her new “business council”, in which business leaders had one big message for the PM: no-one wants a “no deal” Brexit – and Confederation of British Industry director Carolyn Fairbairn repeated her call for a lengthy transition arrangement.

The Times splashes on government plans drawn up by Philip Hammond that include a two-year transition arrangement and private remarks by David Prior, a junior minister, that Britain was headed for “the softest of soft Brexits”.

A cabinet source tells the Guardian that the transition will last even longer than that – a four-year period in which the United Kingdom remains in the single market.

Broadly, the argument at the cabinet table for a transition deal has been won, with the lingering issue the question of how long a transition would run for. The fear among Brexiteers, of course, is that a temporary arrangement would become permanent.

Their long-term difficulty is Remainers' present problem: that no one is changing their minds on whether or not Brexit is a good idea. Put crudely, every year the passing of time winnows away at that Leave lead. When you add the surprise and anger in this morning's papers over what ought to be a routine fact of Brexit – that when the UK is no longer subject to the free movement of people, our own rights of free movement will end – the longer the transition, the better the chances that if parliament's Remainers can force a re-run on whether we really want to go through with this, that Britain will stay in the EU.

A quick two-year transition means coming out of the bloc in 2022, however, just when this parliament is due to end. Any dislocation at that point surely boosts Jeremy Corbyn's chances of getting into Downing Street, so that option won't work for the government either.

There's another factor in all this: a transition deal isn't simply a question of the British government deciding it wants one. It also hinges on progress in the Brexit talks. Politico has a helpful run-down of the progress, or lack thereof, so far – and basically, the worse they go, the less control the United Kingdom has over the shape of the final deal.

But paradoxically, it's those seeking to prevent a referendum re-run who have the most to fear from a bungled exit. The more time is wasted, the more likely that the UK ends up having to agree to a prolonged transition, with the timing of a full-blown trade deal at the EU's convenience. And the longer the transition, the better the chances for Remainers of winning a replay. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.