First scans of brains tripping on acid show how it works


Since being banned in the US in the 1960s, research into the psychedelic drug LSD ceased – until now. Amy Middleton reports.


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A half-century after being banned in the US, the effects of psychedelic drug LSD in the brain are finally revealed.
Images Etc Ltd / Getty Images

The first modern imaging study into the effects of the hallucinogenic drug acid on the brain could lead to its use treating psychiatric diseases, according to researchers.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, picks up where experts in the 1960s left off when the US banned lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD – a psychedelic drug that can alter thought patterns, cause visual hallucinations and induce life-changing psychological effects.

Prior to being made illegal, LSD was being trialled as a treatment in psychology and psychiatry. But because research was cut off, modern technologies such as brain scans, and imaging of nervous systems, were never used to study LSD’s effects.

So researchers led by Robin Carhart-Harris from Imperial College London applied a series of neuroimaging techniques to track the effects of LSD on the human brain.

On two days, a group of volunteers were given either an injection of 75 micrograms of LSD or a placebo before neuroimaging began. While being scanned, volunteers were asked to rate the visual hallucinations and altered thought patterns they experienced during the study.

The neuroimaging results revealed significant shifts in “blood flow to the brain, electrical activity, and network communication patterns”, which correlate with the drug’s mind-altering effects.

Coloured areas show blood flow in the brain. – Imperial College London

For example, during visual hallucinations, the scans showed increased blood flow to the brain. “A far greater proportion of the brain contributes to visual processing in the LSD state than under normal conditions,” the paper reflects.

And increased or decreased connectivity between particular regions of the brain affects image processing and states of consciousness while the patient experiences LSD’s effects.

These interrupted networks can account for feelings of being at one with the Universe: the disintegration of "self", or drug-induced ego-dissolution.

Given these extreme changes in brain activity, some experts theorise that psychedelics could eventually be used to help break down the pathological behaviours associated with some psychiatric disorders.

The paper points out the uniqueness of LSD among other substances, due to the significant impacts it had on science, psychology and culture following its discovery in the mid-20th century.

“LSD produces profound, sometimes life-changing experiences in microgram doses, making it a particularly powerful scientific tool.”

The researchers hope their findings will contribute to the ongoing pool of knowledge around the workings of psychedelics, as “evidence supporting the therapeutic potential of psychedelics mounts”.

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  1. http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2016/04/05/1518377113
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