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 the Brexit Cabinet talks end in a “three baskets” approach?

The joy of the three baskets idea is that everyone gets to tell themselves that it will be their basket that ends up the fullest. 

It's decision day in the Brexit talks. Again.

The Brexit inner Cabinet will meet to hammer out not its final position, but the shape of its negotiating position. The expected result: an agreement on an end state in which the United Kingdom agrees it will follow EU regulations as it were still a member, for example on aviation; will agree to follow EU objectives but go about them in its own way, for example on recycling, where the British government wants to do more on plastic and less on glass; and finally, in some areas, it will go its way completely, for instance on financial services. Or as it has come to be known in Whitehall, the "three baskets" approach.

For all the lengthy run-up, this bit isn't expected to be difficult: the joy of the three baskets idea is that everyone gets to tell themselves that it will be their basket that ends up the fullest. There are two difficulties: the first is that the EU27 won't play ball, and the second is that MPs will kick off when it emerges that their preferred basket is essentially empty.

The objections of the EU27 are perhaps somewhat overwritten. The demands of keeping the Irish border open, maintaining Europol and EU-wide defence operations means that in a large number of areas, a very close regulatory and political relationship is in everyone's interests. But everyone knows that in order for the Conservative government to actually sign the thing, there is going to have to be some divergence somewhere.

The bigger problem is what happens here at home when it turns out that the third basket - that is to say, full regulatory autonomy - is confined to fishing and the "industries of the future". The European Research Group may have a few more letters left to send yet.

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