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12 April 2016

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.

By Barbara Speed

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): 

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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.