Brain and Body

How Does LSD Radically Transform an Individual’s Consciousness?

December 17, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

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According to a new study, brain networks that are usually distinct begin to overlap in connectivity patterns while on LSD.

LSD is most well-known for playing a key role in the hippie revolution of the 60s, inspiring a revolution of free love, peace, and the notion that we are all one. How can a drug induce such radical and lasting transformations to an individual’s consciousness?

The effects of LSD result in hallucinations and “ego-dissolution,” or temporarily losing a sense of self. LSD users often report out-of-body experiences, and a number of epiphanies and realizations about life, death, the universe, and the self.

While scientists have long known that LSD acts at specific serotonin receptors, researchers haven’t understood how the pharmacological effects of LSD can have such profound effects on human consciousness. For clarification, pharmacology is the branch of biology and medicine concerned with drug action and how the substance exerts a biochemical or physiological effect.

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Now, a new report unearths evidence that LSD changes consciousness by reorganizing human brain networks. Specifically, LSD interferes with the activation patterns in the brain networks that underlie human thought and behavior.

Researchers at Imperial College London used fMRI to scan the brains of 20 healthy volunteers over the course of 6 hours. They also used magnetoencephalography (MEG) to record the magnetic fields produced by electric currents in the brain. They found that LSD led to a more chaotic brain state, one that was actually somewhat similar to what is observed in phases of first-episode psychosis.

Additionally, the researchers saw an increase in blood flow in the visual cortex located at the back of the brain, which could explain the common distortions of perception and visual hallucinations that are commonly described by acid users. The MEG changes were also linked to visual hallucinations, which suggests that the visual system of those on LSD tends to be tethered more to the internal world than the external one.

Further, neurons that are supposed to fire together within a network fell out of synchrony, and brain networks that are usually distinct began to overlap in connectivity patterns.

Similar to the current research showing that psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, could be used for therapeutic purposes like smoking cessation or coping with cancer, the researchers think LSD could be used to help people.

"With better assessment tools available today than in the 1950's and 1960's, it may be possible to evaluate potential uses of LSD as a treatment for addiction and other disorders, such as treatment-resistant depression” study lead Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris, said in a press release. He says the researchers are currently investigating this potential with a drug similar to LSD.

However, this research isn’t meant to be taken as a reason to prance off to the forest and take a trip down the rabbit hole. Studies with hallucinogenic drugs are performed in controlled settings with medical professionals on site.

Nonetheless, it will be intriguing to see how future studies with psychedelics unfold. Maybe the key to curing addictions and coping with depression and life-threatening diseases lies in a little break from reality.

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