The Candid Scientist once again welcomes guest author Hareema Mela:
For the first time, scientists have created a visual map showing the effects of LSD on the human brain. As neuropsychopharmacology professor David Nutt says, this discovery is “to neuroscience, what the Higgs boson was to particle physics”. Scientists can now explore using LSD in new treatments for certain psychiatric disorders, and begin to better understand human consciousness and self-awareness.
If you ever wondered what an acid trip feels like, you’re about to find out.
What is it like to trip on LSD?:
LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) is the quintessential psychedelic drug. Users typically report complex visual hallucinations, extreme emotions (i.e. euphoria and terror), and sometimes a sense of being “one with the universe”. To connect these subjective experiences with their corresponding brain mechanisms, researchers from Imperial College London gave intravenous LSD to 20 healthy participants, and studied their brains using advanced brain imaging techniques. Fun fact: this study was crowdfunded!
How did they do it?
Good question, because research on illegal drugs is notoriously difficult to get off the ground due to policy restrictions. Fortunately, these restrictions are looser in England. With the approval in hand, researchers gave one group of participants LSD, and gave a second group a placebo. As the participants rested with their eyes closed, the researchers measured blood flow in the brain using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), and electrical activity using magnetoencephalography (MEP).
What did they find?
A few things. LSD participants had increased blood flow to the visual cortex, a part of the brain that processes visual input. In fact, the visual cortex actually communicated more with the rest of the brain than usual. This explains how normally discreet psychological functions like emotions, thoughts, and physical sensations can enhance the visual experience while taking LSD. In a way, the LSD participants were seeing with their eyes closed.
Researchers also found that resting-state functional connectivity decreased, which means the brain had more spontaneous neural activity going on than it usually does. The Default Mode Network lost integrity, which means the normal resting state of brain activity had disintegrated into something more entropic or chaotic. This correlated with the participants losing their sense of self (also called “ego-dissolution”) and feeling freer, child-like, and more connected to the world around them.
So what does this all mean?
Overall, it seems LSD unified different areas of the brain. As we grow from infants to adults, our brains become more compartmentalized, with different parts performing specialized functions like vision, hearing, and movement. LSD seems to break down these compartmentalized structures into a more integrated brain.
Future research on LSD could have treatment implications on psychiatric conditions where neural patterns become too rigid, like depression or addiction. It could also deepen our understanding of consciousness and self-awareness, which many believe is the essence of being human.
About the Author:
Hareema Mela has a Master’s degree in Applied Clinical Psychology from Penn State University. She currently works as a drug and alcohol educator and interventionist at the university’s health center.