This month the world got its first modern look at the brain on LSD. Decades after psychologist Timothy Leary advocated for the drug’s controlled use both in creative experimentation and mental health treatment, a whole new crop of neuroscience researchers released images from the first-ever brain scans performed on LSD users. The results have reignited a controversial clinical theory that the drug can be effective in the treatment of depressive disorders and other select mental illnesses.
In a recent study that many argue was 50 years in the making, researchers from Imperial College in London administered 20 healthy volunteers with Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) as well as a placebo. The results have sparked surprise, comment, and debate throughout the clinical community, and have even been characterized by some researchers as the “Higgs Boson” equivalent of neuroscience. The study was published in Current Biology and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) journal this past week, and was a partnership between Imperial College and the UK-based Beckley Foundation.
Increased Visual Processing
Researchers found an increase in global connectivity, which essentially means that certain areas of the brain were working overtime and talking to one another in a way they would not otherwise do. The scan-images revealed that under LSD, different areas of the brain that normally operate in a separate and compartmentalized fashion, can operate simultaneously and even overlap one another, specifically visual processing, a function generally reserved for the visual cortex. Study participants’ scans revealed visual processing triggered by other areas of the brain, as well. Scientists believe that this could explain the complex visual hallucinations that often occur when taking LSD.
Researchers specifically found an increase in activity of the fronto-parietal cortex, a region of the brain that’s associated with how we perceive ourselves. They also found that this region became more entangled with the part of the brain that deals with how we perceive our environment, which leads to a phenomenon called “ego dissolution.”
What Is Ego Dissolution?
In essence, ego dissolution means the breaking down of one’s normal sense of self, followed by a perceived heightened reconnection with the self, others and the natural world. Study leader Robin Cahart-Harris added that the effects of LSD can mirror the brain’s activity during infancy, particularly the hyper-emotional and inquisitive aspects of infantile thought. He also said the experience seemed to be linked to “improvements in well-being” after the drug’s effects subside. Fellow researcher and professor of neuropsychopharmacology, David Nutt said the findings could have great implications for psychiatry. Whatever its long-term impact, it’s very possible that the study will usher in a new era of LSD-related research.
The Past and Future of LSD
LSD was first synthesized in 1948, but its psychological effects were not discovered until about five years later. It was commonly used in psychiatric research until its prohibition in the 1960s.
Researchers remain hopeful that some of LSD’s chemical-compounds can be used in the treatment of certain psychiatric disorders. They believe that the drug can help pull the brain out of certain toxic thought patterns that contribute to conditions like depression and anxiety. This, however, is likely to be a hard sell given the drug’s controversial past and its current restrictive status as a controlled substance. With the stigma, legal issues and belief by many that the drug causes brain damage, the question of whether or not LSD, in any form, has a place in psychiatric medicine remains.
An Ongoing Debate
The use of LSD to treat psychiatric disorder has been a hotly debated subjected for the better part of a century. Opponents cite the potential for abuse and the uncertainty of clinical outcomes while advocates claim that resistance to the idea is the product of misinformation and ignorance. Many say that making the drug illegal reflected a time in which medicine was simply unable to keep pace with the drug’s potential benefits. Despite this recent study, it’s unlikely that a consensus is imminent. While there may be increasing institutional support to start reintroducing LSD into certain types of clinical treatment, the stakes may just be too high and the resistance too great.