Brain and Body

LSD May Lift Depression by Mediating "Mental Time Travel," Researchers Argue

March 31, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

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It could help people stop dwelling on the past.

There has been plenty of recent research investigating the potential of harnessing the therapeutic benefits of psychedelic drugs, and a new study suggests that taking lysergic acid diethylamide — more commonly known as LSD or acid — could help people overcome depression.

Past studies have shown that depressed moods are often linked with a tendency to dwell on the past and ruminate on one’s own history. In a way, this thinking is like a kind of “mental time travel,” and the new research indicates that LSD may inhibit the brain network that mediates this time travel of the mind.

SEE ALSO: Ketamine Leads to “Most Significant Advance in Mental Health in More than Half a Century”

Published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, the study defines “mental time travel” as “the ability of humans to mentally project themselves backwards and forwards in time, to recollect aspects of past autobiographical episodes or imagine future experiences.”

Moreover, scholars have noted that the ability to access and replay previous life events significantly contributes to a person’s sense of self and identity, which academics refer to as the “ego.”

The key circuit that mediates an individual’s capacity for mental time travel is a particular brain network called the default-mode network (DMN). Research has shown that people with higher rates of connectivity in the DMN have the tendency to dwell on the past more, engage in ruminative thought, and suffer from depression.

Due to this association, a team of researchers led by Jana Speth at the University of Dundee decided to determine whether LSD can reduce the tendency for mental time travel by administering volunteers with either a real dose of LSD or a placebo.

They took fMRI scans of the participants’ brains immediately after drug or placebo administration, and then conducted a series of interviews with the participants. They analyzed the transcripts of these conversations in order to compare the differences in language used between those who had received a dose of LSD and those who had not.

In particular, the researchers were on the lookout for “theta roles,” which are linguistic constructs that signify mental time travel to the past, present, and future.

According to the results, the people who took LSD used far fewer references to the past than those who received the placebo, which not only suggests a decrease in mental time travel, but also hints at an experiential focus on the present.

SEE ALSO: Ketamine Led Scientists to New, Fast-Acting Antidepressant

The study authors note that the extent of this effect was directly correlated with the degree to which the connectivity of the DMN was weakened by the LSD, suggesting that acid can indeed decrease mental time travel by inhibiting the brain region responsible for mediating it.

While this study’s findings are exciting, it doesn’t mean you should hurry off to find a dose of acid if you’re someone who struggles with depression — the research was carried out in a controlled setting, and future studies will have to further explore LSD’s potential to alleviate long-term depression before doctors and scientists jump to any bold conclusions.

Nonetheless, the researchers suggest that “such enduring effects seem likely.”

With the revival of psychedelic science research, we may be headed towards some exciting times.

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