The Beckley Foundation
Show Hide image

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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Labour is launching a stealthy Scottish comeback - thanks to Jeremy Corbyn and the Daily Mail

The Scottish Labour strategy is paying off - and hard evidence that it works may be more plentiful come 8 June 2017

When I suggested to a senior Scottish Labour figure earlier this year that the party was a car crash, he rejected my assertion.

“We’re past that,” he said gloomily. “Now we’re the burnt-out wreck in a field that no-one even notices anymore.”

And yet, just as the election campaign has seen Jeremy Corbyn transformed from an outdated jalopy into Chitty Chitty Bang Bang magically soaring in the polls, Scottish Labour is beginning to look roadworthy again.

And it’s all down to two apparently contradictory forces – Corbyn and The Daily Mail.

Kezia Dugdale’s decision to hire Alan Roden, then the Scottish Daily Mail’s political editor, as her spin doctor in chief last summer was said to have lost her some party members. It may win her some new members of parliament just nine months later.

Roden’s undoubted nose for a story and nous in driving the news agenda, learned in his years at the Mail, has seen Nicola Sturgeon repeatedly forced to defend her government record on health and education in recent weeks, even though her Holyrood administration is not up for election next month.

On ITV’s leaders debate she confessed that, despite 10 years in power, the Scottish education system is in need of some attention. And a few days later she was taken to task during a BBC debate involving the Scottish leaders by a nurse who told her she had to visit a food bank to get by. The subsequent SNP attempt to smear that nurse was a pathetic mis-step by the party that suggested their media operation had gone awry.

It’s not the Tories putting Sturgeon on the defence. They, like the SNP, are happy to contend the general election on constitutional issues in the hope of corralling the unionist vote or even just the votes of those that don’t yet want a second independence referendum. It is Labour who are spotting the opportunities and maximising them.

However, that would not be enough alone. For although folk like Dugdale as a person – as evidenced in Lord Ashcroft’s latest polling - she lacks the policy chops to build on that. Witness her dopey proposal ahead of the last Holyrood election to raise income tax.

Dugdale may be a self-confessed Blairite but what’s powering Scottish Labour just now is Jeremy Corbyn’s more left-wing policy platform.

For as Brexit has dropped down the agenda at this election, and bread and butter stuff like health and education has moved centre stage, Scots are seeing that for all the SNP’s left wing rhetoric, after 10 years in power in Holyrood, there’s not a lot of progressive policy to show for it.

Corbyn’s manifesto, even though huge chunks of it won’t apply in Scotland, is progressive. The evidence is anecdotal at the moment, but it seems some Scots voters find it more attractive than the timid managerialism of the SNP. This is particularly the case with another independence referendum looking very unlikely before the 2020s, on either the nationalists' or the Conservatives' timetable.

Evidence that the Scottish Labour strategy has worked may be more plentiful come 8 June 2017. The polls, albeit with small sample sizes so best approached with caution, have Ian Murray streets ahead in the battle to defend Edinburgh South. There’s a lot of optimism in East Lothian where Labour won the council earlier in May and MSP Iain Gray increased his majority at the Scottish election last year. Labour have chosen their local candidate well in local teacher Martin Whitfield, and if the unionist vote swings behind him he could overhaul sitting MP George Kerevan’s 7,000 majority. (As we learned in 2015, apparently safe majorities mean nothing in the face of larger electoral forces). In East Renfrewshire, Labour's Blair McDougall, the man who led Better Together in 2014, can out-unionist the Tory candidate.

But, while in April, it was suggested that these three seats would be the sole focus of the Scottish Labour campaign, that attitude has changed after the local elections. Labour lost Glasgow but did not implode. In chunks of their former west of Scotland heartlands there was signs of life.

Mhairi Black’s a media darling, but her reputation as a local MP rather than a local celebrity is not great. Labour would love to unseat her, in what would be a huge upset, or perhaps more realistically go after Gavin Newlands in the neighbouring Paisley seat.

They are also sniffing Glasgow East. With Natalie McGarry’s stint as MP ending in tears – a police investigation, voting in her wedding dress and fainting in the chamber sums up her two years in Westminster – Labour ought to be in with a chance in the deprived neighbourhoods of Glasgow’s east end.

Labour in Scotland doesn’t feel like such a wreck anymore. Alan Roden’s Daily Mail-honed media nous has grabbed attention. Corbyn’s progressive policies have put fuel in the tank.

After polling day, the party will be able to fit all its Scottish MPs comfortably in a small hatchback, compared to the double decker bus necessary just a few years back.

But this general election could give the party the necessary shove to get on to the long road back.

James Millar is a political journalist and founder of the Political Yeti's Politics Podcast. He is co-author of The Gender Agenda, which will be published July 21 by Jessica Kingsley Publishing.

0800 7318496