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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.

Photo: Getty
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What Jeremy Corbyn gets right about the single market

Technically, you can be outside the EU but inside the single market. Philosophically, you're still in the EU. 

I’ve been trying to work out what bothers me about the response to Jeremy Corbyn’s interview on the Andrew Marr programme.

What bothers me about Corbyn’s interview is obvious: the use of the phrase “wholesale importation” to describe people coming from Eastern Europe to the United Kingdom makes them sound like boxes of sugar rather than people. Adding to that, by suggesting that this “importation” had “destroy[ed] conditions”, rather than laying the blame on Britain’s under-enforced and under-regulated labour market, his words were more appropriate to a politician who believes that immigrants are objects to be scapegoated, not people to be served. (Though perhaps that is appropriate for the leader of the Labour Party if recent history is any guide.)

But I’m bothered, too, by the reaction to another part of his interview, in which the Labour leader said that Britain must leave the single market as it leaves the European Union. The response to this, which is technically correct, has been to attack Corbyn as Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Norway and Iceland are members of the single market but not the European Union.

In my view, leaving the single market will make Britain poorer in the short and long term, will immediately render much of Labour’s 2017 manifesto moot and will, in the long run, be a far bigger victory for right-wing politics than any mere election. Corbyn’s view, that the benefits of freeing a British government from the rules of the single market will outweigh the costs, doesn’t seem very likely to me. So why do I feel so uneasy about the claim that you can be a member of the single market and not the European Union?

I think it’s because the difficult truth is that these countries are, de facto, in the European Union in any meaningful sense. By any estimation, the three pillars of Britain’s “Out” vote were, firstly, control over Britain’s borders, aka the end of the free movement of people, secondly, more money for the public realm aka £350m a week for the NHS, and thirdly control over Britain’s own laws. It’s hard to see how, if the United Kingdom continues to be subject to the free movement of people, continues to pay large sums towards the European Union, and continues to have its laws set elsewhere, we have “honoured the referendum result”.

None of which changes my view that leaving the single market would be a catastrophe for the United Kingdom. But retaining Britain’s single market membership starts with making the argument for single market membership, not hiding behind rhetorical tricks about whether or not single market membership was on the ballot last June, when it quite clearly was. 

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.