The study of psychedelic drugs is particularly difficult for neuroscientists due to legal restrictions and fears about dangerous side effects. While researchers had some understanding of the effects of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) through analyzing the experiences of people who had taken the drug, the neurological response was still a mystery because scientists were never able to conduct brain scans.
David Nutt, DM, FRCP, a member of the Dana Alliance and former chairman of the UK Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, recently conducted the first brain scans showing the brain on LSD. Nutt, a longtime advocate for the study of psychedelic drugs and 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), especially as therapeutic tools to treat psychiatric disorders, talked about the importance of studying these drugs in a 2012 interview with us. Nutt said:
Since the banning of these drugs there have been amazing advances in the techniques to study the brain, particularly magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). This has revolutionized our understanding of the location of brain functions and the interactions between brain regions. Temporary “mind-altering” substances like psychedelics and MDMA should be central to neuroscience research and our understanding of many brain functions. They also offer exciting new approaches to treatments of brain disorders. It is hugely disappointing that the opportunities offered by these drugs have been so impeded by their legal status.
Nutt, who is also a neuropsychopharmacologist at Imperial College London and the study’s senior researcher, injected 20 experienced LSD users with 75mcg of LSD. His team then monitored their reactions using different brain scanning techniques, including functional MRI and magnetoencephalography (MEG).
Researchers found that barriers were removed between parts of the brain that do not normally communicate, increasing overall connectivity. For instance, the visual cortex normally processes visual information, but LSD causes other parts of the brain to become active as well. Increased connectivity in visual processes accounts for the hallucinations LSD users experience.
The parahippocampus and retrosplenial cortex (RSC) also became less connected, which causes “ego-dissolution,” or loss of sense of self, that results in feeling more connected to others. This observation provides a better understanding into the parts of the brain that control our sense of self and identity. Additionally, “ego-dissolution” often leaves people with a sense of wellbeing and connectedness to others even after drug effects subside, which could be used as a way to treat psychiatric disorders such as alcoholism and depression.
Though these drugs are still illegal and very difficult to access for research, studies like this one may help lead the way to new insights on consciousness, alternate treatments for psychiatric illnesses, and, ultimately, better accessibility of banned drugs for scientists and patients.
– Ali Chunovic