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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UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.