Brain and Body

For the First Time, Scientists Have Captured Mind-Blowing Images of the Brain on LSD

April 13, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

Psychedelic fractal design
Photo credit: Ирина Печкарёва/wikimedia (CC by SA 3.0)

“This is to neuroscience what the Higgs boson was to particle physics.”

Tripping on psychedelic drugs like LSD and mushrooms has profound, eye-opening, and spiritual effects on the mind. The drugs have intrigued scientists and commonfolk alike for decades, and researchers have been trying to figure out just how they guide the mind through these intense transformations.

Now, for the first time ever, scientists have captured brain scans of volunteers who were willing to get high on LSD in the name of science.

Led by David Nutt, a professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London, the research team recruited 20 volunteers who agreed to take a trip down the rabbit hole. They were injected with 75 micrograms (0.075 mg) of LSD for the first experiment, and a placebo for the next.

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With the new images, the scientists were able to see which brain regions are activated by the hallucinogen, and how regions that usually work separately begin to signal each other in response to the drug — effectively producing the intense effects on the mind.

The researchers used three different brain imaging techniques — arterial spin labelling, resting state MRI, and magnetoencephalography — to measure and compare the functional brain connections within and between brain networks, brainwaves, and blood flow.

Interestingly, the participants’ appeared to literally see the world in a fundamentally different way than people who aren’t on acid. Their visual processing was no longer restricted to the visual cortex of the brain — instead, a number of different brain regions contributed to what they “saw,” 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," explains co-researcher Robin Carhart-Harris in a press release. "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.”

You can compare the brain activity of an acid-dosed brain to a placebo-dosed brain below:

Neural correlates of the LSD experience revealed by multimodal neuroimaging

Credit: Imperial/Beckley Foundation

Clearly, there’s a lot more activity going on in the brain of an individual on LSD than someone not on the drug.

The researchers explain that the brain regions that don’t usually signal each other suddenly become connected, and some of the regions that usually form a network become separated.

Perhaps this provides some insight into why LSD is linked to a transformed sense of consciousness and an intense feeling of “oneness” with other human beings and the universe, but also why people on acid can experience a loss of personal identity or confusion.

“Under LSD the separateness of these networks breaks down and instead you see a more integrated or unified brain,” explains Carhart-Harris.

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This study, which is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is a massive leap forward in the modern-day psychedelic research movement. In fact, Nutt told The Guardian that neuroscientists have been waiting decades for this moment.

"This is to neuroscience what the Higgs boson was to particle physics," he told The Guardian. "We didn’t know how these profound effects were produced. It was too difficult to do. Scientists were either scared or couldn’t be bothered to overcome the enormous hurdles to get this done."

LSD is more than just a substance for hippies or druggies to trip out on — researchers have investigated its therapeutic abilities for a number of debilitating psychiatric disorders, like depression, anxiety, and addiction. Understanding how LSD has such profound effects on consciousness is critical to harness its full therapeutic benefits.

In the release, Amanda Feilding, the director of the Beckley Foundation in the UK, which partly funded the study, said, "We are finally unveiling the brain mechanisms underlying the potential of LSD, not only to heal, but also to deepen our understanding of consciousness itself.”

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