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The acid test: for the first time, we know what the brain on LSD actually looks like

A new landmark study has skirted cultural taboo and legal red tape to produce images of LSD’s effects.

There has been a great deal of research into LSD and its effects on humans, but most of it took place in the decades after the drug was discovered in 1938. In the Sixties, it became illegal in many places, but more importantly for scientists, it was also listed as a Schedule One drug in the US and UK – meaning it was no longer eligible for clinical resesarch. 

But this week, a team from Imperial College and the Beckley Foundation (which is dedicated to the study of consciousness and reforming drug policy) has released the first images of the brain on LSD produced since the clamp-down over half a century ago. 

Volunteers were administered a 75 microgram dose of LSD or a placebo, then their brains were analysed using two types of MRI scan and an MEG, which detects brain waves. 

The images below show activity in the visual cortex of the brain in volunteers who had taken the placebo, compared to those who had taken the drug (both would have had their eyes shut at the time of the scan): 

The extra visual activity in the second set gives evidence for something we already know – that those who take LSD experience vivid visual hallucinations, even when they're in the dark. Volunteers were asked questions about their hallucinations, and their answers correlated with activity in their visual cortex. 

The second major reported effect of LSD is an altered state of consciousness, or a changed sense of self. One volunteer in the study said: “I felt removed in some way from what I would usually describe as ‘my self’.” The researchers found that answers of this type correlated with decreased connectivity between parts of the brain which usually link to one another; neurons which normally fire together were less synchronised in the brain wave analysis. 

These results concretely link anecdotal experiences of LSD with measurable brain activity for the first time, but they could also open the door to uses of LSD in medicine. The drug's ability to disrupt normal brain activity and weaken our brainwaves' routines mean it could be used to treat mental health conditions characterised by rigid thinking, such as OCD and depression. 

Yet if this were to be investigated, LSD must be downgraded to Schedule Two. These researchers were able to investigate the drug because they used only volunteers who had taken psychoactive substances before, and they weren't researching for medical purposes. A full clinical trial would need to include people who were “naive”, or first-time users, and could never take place while the drug is stilll listed in Schedule One. 

Amanda Feilding, Countess of Wemyss and founder of the Beckley Foundation, has been lobbying for medical research into LSD since the Sixties when she first tried the drug. This week, aged 73, she is celebrating her biggest breakthrough yet. In a speech to launch the research at tthe Royal Society, Feilding said that she is collaborating on LSD and psychoactive substance studies all over the world, and that they have had generally positive results: “This is an indication that these substances do indeed have medical value, and that in order not to deprive patients in need of appropriate treatment, they should  be moved from Schedule 1 to Schedule 2,” she said.

David Nutt, the former chief government drug advisor, also worked on the research and told journalists that the work is “the most important thing I have ever done”. With luck, he added, it could “open the floodgates” to more investigation, and even medical breakthroughs. 

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

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Labour’s best general election bet is Keir Starmer

The shadow secretary for Brexit has the heart of a Remainer - but head of a pragmatic politician in Brexit Britain. 

In a different election, the shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer might have been written off as too quiet a man. Instead - as he set out his plans to scrap the Brexit white paper and offer EU citizens reassurance on “Day One” in the grand hall of the Institute of Civil Engineers - the audience burst into spontaneous applause. 

For voters now torn between their loyalty to Labour and Remain, Starmer is a reassuring figure. Although he says he respects the Brexit vote, the former director of public prosecutions is instinctively in favour of collaborating with Europe. He even wedges phrases like “regulatory alignment” into his speeches. When a journalist asked about the practicality of giving EU citizens right to remain before UK citizens abroad have received similar promises, he retorted: “The way you just described it is to use people as bargaining chips… We would not do that.”

He is also clear about the need for Parliament to vote on a Brexit deal in the autumn of 2018, for a transitional agreement to replace the cliff edge, and for membership of the single market and customs union to be back on the table. When pressed on the option of a second referendum, he said: “The whole point of trying to involve Parliament in the process is that when we get to the final vote, Parliament has had its say.” His main argument against a second referendum idea is that it doesn’t compare like with like, if a transitional deal is already in place. For Remainers, that doesn't sound like a blanket veto of #EUref2. 

Could Leave voters in the provinces warm to the London MP for Holborn and St Pancras? The answer seems to be no – The Daily Express, voice of the blue passport brigade, branded his speech “a plot”. But Starmer is at least respectful of the Brexit vote, as it stands. His speech was introduced by Jenny Chapman, MP for Darlington, who berated Westminster for their attitude to Leave voters, and declared: “I would not be standing here if the Labour Party were in anyway attempting to block Brexit.” Yes, Labour supporters who voted Leave may prefer a Brexiteer like Kate Hoey to Starmer,  but he's in the shadow Cabinet and she's on a boat with Nigel Farage. 

Then there’s the fact Starmer has done his homework. His argument is coherent. His speech was peppered with references to “businesses I spoke to”. He has travelled around the country. He accepts that Brexit means changing freedom of movement rules. Unlike Clive Lewis, often talked about as another leadership contender, he did not resign but voted for the Article 50 Bill. He is one of the rare shadow cabinet members before June 2016 who rejoined the front bench. This also matters as far as Labour members are concerned – a March poll found they disapproved of the way Labour has handled Brexit, but remain loyal to Jeremy Corbyn. 

Finally, for those voters who, like Brenda, reacted to news of a general election by complaining "Not ANOTHER one", Starmer has some of the same appeal as Theresa May - he seems competent and grown-up. While EU regulation may be intensely fascinating to Brexiteers and Brussels correspondents, I suspect that by 2019 most of the British public's overwhelming reaction to Brexit will be boredom. Starmer's willingness to step up to the job matters. 

Starmer may not have the grassroots touch of the Labour leader, nor the charisma of backbench dissidents like Chuka Umunna, but the party should make him the de facto face of the campaign.  In the hysterics of a Brexit election, a quiet man may be just what Labour needs.

What did Keir Starmer say? The key points of his speech

  • An immediate guarantee that all EU nationals currently living in the UK will see no change in their legal status as a result of Brexit, while seeking reciprocal measures for UK citizens in the EU. 
  • Replacing the Tories’ Great Repeal Bill with an EU Rights and Protections Bill which fully protects consumer, worker and environmental rights.
  • A replacement White Paper with a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the single market and the customs union. 
  • The devolution of any new powers that are transferred back from Brussels should go straight to the relevant devolved body, whether regional government in England or the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • Parliament should be fully involved in the Brexit deal, and MPs should be able to vote on the deal in autumn 2018.
  • A commitment to seek to negotiate strong transitional arrangements when leaving the EU and to ensure there is no cliff-edge for the UK economy. 
  • An acceptance that freedom of movement will end with leaving the EU, but a commitment to prioritise jobs and economy in the negotiations.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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