Brainwaves on LSD
By Connie Cai
In 1938, Swiss researcher Albert Hofmann was charged with developing new chemicals to be used as blood analeptics. On accident, Hofmann ingested one of his chemical derivatives and experienced what he described in his laboratory notes as an “uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, [and] extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colours.”1 Almost 80 years after its accidental inception, LSD –– lysergic acid diethylamide, or “acid” as it is commonly called –– is currently a Schedule I drug in the United States. This means it is under the most stringent regulation possible and as a result, studies analyzing LSD’s effects in humans are limited.
However, in recent years, researchers have pressed back against federal regulations, citing the possible therapeutic uses of LSD and other psychedelic drugs. Professor David Nutt and Professor Robin Carhart-Harris at the Imperial College London led one of only two research groups in the world that have been cleared to research the effects of LSD on humans. In their 2016 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Professor Nutt and his team administered LSD to 20 participants. They then measured the participants’ brainwaves, brain activity, and blood flow using fMRI and magnetoencephalography (MEG).3 These are the first scans to show the effects of LSD on the human brain.
Their findings report increased visual cortex blood flow and activity in the participants––even with their eyes closed, participants were still “seeing” something.3 These results correspond to the vivid hallucinations people often report upon taking LSD. In addition, the researchers found that normal neural pathways, particularly the connection between the parahippocampus and the retrosplenial cortex (RSC) that enables spatial navigation, experienced less blood flow.2 Disrupting this connection creates what researchers call “ego-dissolution,” or the inability to distinguish between what is self and what is other.4 Accordingly, LSD users often report feeling more connected with the world around them –– as if they were melded with their surroundings.4
More importantly, the researchers found that new neural connections between parts of the brain that didn’t usually work together were firing.2 Because of this neural rewiring, the participants’ brains were able to explore the world in novel ways –– leading to effects similar to synesthesia where the senses mix and users could smell colors or taste sounds. Moreover, LSD’s effect on neural pathways hints at a potential medical use: Wherever the brain has developed adverse neural connections, such as in depression or addiction, LSD could be used to rewire and even foster beneficial connections between different parts of the brain.5
Despite the study’s limited size –– only 20 participants in total –– Professor Nutt still professed confidence in his findings. In an interview with Nature, Nutt said, “We got very clear and significant effects –– and they were consistent with the data from previous studies with psilocybin [another psychedelic], although the effects with LSD were much stronger.”6 Though critics of the study point out that all 20 participants had used psychedelics before (a safety measure for the experiment), given that all the scans produced remarkably similar results, the study suggests first-time users may experience LSD similarly to the participants in the study.4
This study’s encouraging results add substance to the growing pressure to ease governmental regulations on LSD research. At a time when rates of mental illness are rising and current treatments have plateaued, LSD and other psychedelics appear promising as potential medications.7 Yet after decades of tight regulations and limited knowledge of the drug, it’s hard to tell exactly what role LSD will play in our future society. Professor Nutt’s study only shows that LSD encourages neuroplasticity, but whether we will ever be able to harness LSD for therapeutic uses is still an open question. Nevertheless, if we find a way to do so, LSD could benefit many people suffering from a slew of psychological disorders. LSD is not a panacea, but with more research, we can begin to fully understand its risks and its benefits.
- “Albert Hofmann.” The Telegraph, 29 Apr. 2008. The Telegraph, www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/1912485/Obituary-Albert-Hofmann-LSD-inventor.html. Accessed 17 July 2017.
- Eschner, Kat. “What We Know about CIA’s Midcentury Mind Control Project.” Smithsonian, 13 Apr. 2017, www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/what-we-know-about-cias-midcentury-mind-control-project-180962836/. Accessed 11 July 2017.
- Nutt, David, and Robert Carhart-Harris. Neural correlates of the LSD experience revealed by multimodal neuroimaging. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, www.pnas.org/content/113/17/4853. Accessed 11 July 2017.
- Wighton, Katie. “The Brain on LSD Revealed: First Scans Show How the Drug Affects the Brain.” Imperial College London News, 11 Apr. 2016, www3.imperial.ac.uk/newsandeventspggrp/imperialcollege/newssummary/news_11-4-2016-17-21-2. Accessed 11 July 2017.
- Anderson, Andrea. “LSD May Chip Away at the Brain’s ‘Sense of Self’ Network.” Scientific American, 13 Apr. 2016, www.scientificamerican.com/article/lsd-may-chip-away-at-the-brain-s-sense-of-self-network/. Accessed 11 July 2017.
- Nutt, David. “Brain Scans Reveal How LSD Affects Consciousness.” Interview by Zoe Cormier. Nature, 11 Apr. 2016, www.nature.com/news/brain-scans-reveal-how-lsd-affects-consciousness-1.19727#/ref-link-5. Accessed 11 July 2017.
- Fletcher, Seth, et al. “End the Ban on Psychoactive Drug Research.” Scientific American, 1 Feb. 2014, www.scientificamerican.com/article/end-the-ban-on-psychoactive-drug-research/. Accessed 11 July 2017.