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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Nick Timothy’s defence of Theresa May raises more questions than it answers

It would be better for May’s reputation if she had known about those vans.

Nick Timothy makes an eyebrow-raising claim in his Telegraph column today: that Theresa May opposed the notorious “Go Home” vans that trundled through diverse parts of the country advising illegal immigrants to leave the country – actually claiming she went as far as to block them – but the scheme was “revived and approved” in a press plan while she was on holiday.

Some people are assuming that this story is flatly untrue, and not without good reason. The Times’ Henry Zeffman has dug out a written answer from Amber Rudd saying that while Mark Harper, a junior Home Office minister, approved the vans, he informed May of the scheme ahead of time. The timeframe also stretches credulity somewhat. This is the same government department that having decided to destroy the landing cards of Windrush Britons in June 2009, still had yet to locate a shredder by October 2010. Whitehall takes years to approve advertising campaigns and even the process of hiring a van is not simple: so it stretches credulity a tad to imagine that the Home Office would sign off a poster, hire a van and a driver, all without it either coming across the desk of the Home Secretary or her special advisor. That no official faced dismissal as a result stretches it further still.

However, it is worth noting that Mark Harper, the minister who approved the vans, was the only serving minister to have worked with May at the Home Office who did not continue on in government when she became Prime Minister – instead, she sacked him from his post. The Home Office acting off its own bat would support the belief, not uncommon among civil servants at other Whitehall departments, that Britain’s interior ministry is out of control: that it regularly goes further than its ministerial mandate and that it has an institutional dislike of the people it deals with day to day. So while it seems unlikely that the vans reached the streets without May or her advisors knowing, it is not impossible.

However, that raises more questions than it answers. If you take the Timothy version of events as true, that means that May knew the following things about the Home Office: that they were willing to not only hide the facts from ministers but to actively push ahead with policy proposals that the Secretary of State had dropped. Despite knowing that, she championed a vast increase in the powers and scope of the Home Office in the 2014 Immigration Act and at the peak of her powers in 2016 did the same as Prime Minister. She made no effort to address this troubling culture for the remaining three years she served as Home Secretary, and promoted three of her juniors, none of whom appear to have done anything to address it either, to big jobs across the government. It means that she had little grip over her department an no inclination to assert it. (Indeed, this is why the Secretary of State is held responsible even for decisions that they don’t sign off – as otherwise you have no democratic accountability at all.)

If those vans were sprung on May and her political team, that is even more troubling than the idea that they approved them.

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.