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Researchers discover how LSD affects the brain

Posted on 05-10-16 in Research, Substance Abuse, Treatment

Researchers discover how LSD affects the brain

A group of researchers at the Imperial College London in conjunction with the Beckley Foundation have successfully mapped the effects of LSD on the human brain. The results of this study, published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), may help future researchers better understand altered states of consciousness. Ideally, this knowledge will also help scientists craft therapeutic treatments for psychiatric disorders.

The study

The research was led by Robin Carhart-Harris, Ph.D., a research fellow from the Department of Medicine at Imperial College London. The team of researchers administered LSD, or lysergic acid diethylamide, to 20 volunteers via injection. All participants reported a history of psychedelic drug use and were deemed to be psychologically and physically healthy.

After participants were given a dose of LSD, the researchers measured their brain activity through a variety of different imaging techniques including functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and magnetoencephalography (MEG). The participants were then tested again with injections of saline solution to make sure that the observed brain changes were due to the drug and not simply receiving an injection.

The researchers found that, while people typically process images using the visual cortex, individuals who were on LSD used several additional brain regions to process the same information, even when their eyes were closed.

“We observed brain changes under LSD that suggested our volunteers were ‘seeing with their eyes shut’ — albeit they were seeing things from their imagination rather than from the outside world,” explained Carhart-Harris. “We saw that many more areas of the brain than normal were contributing to visual processing under LSD — even though the volunteers’ eyes were closed. Furthermore, the size of this effect correlated with volunteers’ ratings of complex, dreamlike visions.”

The researchers also observed that LSD enabled brain regions that didn’t usually communicate to ‘talk’ with each other.

“Normally our brain consists of independent networks that perform separate specialized functions, such as vision, movement and hearing — as well as more complex things like attention,” said Carhart-Harris. “However, under LSD the separateness of these networks breaks down and instead you see a more integrated or unified brain.”

Why is this important?

The researchers hope that by understanding how the brain responds to LSD (and altered states of consciousness), they might be able to better understand and treat psychiatric disorders. They even suspect that there may be ways for LSD to treat mental illnesses in which negative thought patterns are entrenched, such as depression or addiction.

Mendel Kaelen, one of the authors, explained:

“A major focus for future research is how we can use the knowledge gained from our current research to develop more effective therapeutic approaches for treatments such as depression; for example, music-listening and LSD may be a powerful therapeutic combination if provided in the right way.”

It remains to be seen whether or not future clinicians will use LSD to treat psychiatric conditions. In the meantime, researchers will keep studying the effects of various drugs and medications on the brain in hopes of discovering new ways to treat mental health and addiction.

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About the author

Courtney Lopresti, M.S., is a senior staff writer for the Sovereign Health Group where she uses her scientific background to write online blogs and articles for a general audience. At the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned her Master’s in neuroscience, she used functional neuroimaging to study how the human cerebellum contributes to language processing. In her spare time, she writes fiction, reads Oliver Sacks and spends time with her two cats and bird. Courtney is currently located in Minneapolis. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author  at