New LSD Research Provides the First Images of the Brain on Acid, and Hints at Its Potential to Promote Creativity

Talk to nearly any veteran of sixties counterculture, and you’re bound to hear a story or three about an acid trip. Some of those trips were bad, man, full of nightmare hallucinations and severe anxiety. In other accounts, however, LSD gets credit for opening up the mind, releasing old patterns of thought, and freeing up latent creative energy. From Ken Kesey to R. Crumb, these stories abound. Are they credible? Now that scientists have once again begun to study the drug—first synthesized in 1938 and used in experiments in the 50s and 60s until it was banned nearly everywhere—they are finding concrete answers using the latest in brain imaging technology.

LSD Scans

And it appears that LSD—-in a controlled laboratory setting at least—“can be seen as reversing the more restricted thinking we develop from infancy to adulthood.” So reports The Guardian in regard to experiments recently conducted by neuropharmacologist David Nutt, former “drugs advisor” for the British government. Nutt gave volunteer subjects an injection of LSD, then captured the first images ever recorded of the brain on acid. You can see dramatic animations of those scans in the video at the top of the post, comparing the brains of test subjects on the drug and those on placebo, and see some static images above. The study, says Nutt, “is to neuroscience what the Higgs boson was to particle physics.” In an interview with Nature, he describes LSD research as a “way to study the biological phenomenon that is consciousness.”

What the subjects experienced won’t necessarily surprise anyone who has been on one of those legendary, mind-altering trips: researchers found, writes The Guardian, that “under the drug, regions [of the brain] once segregated spoke to one another,” producing hallucinations, “feelings of oneness with the world,” and “a loss of personal identity called ‘ego dissolution.’” However, prior to this study, Nutt says, “we didn’t know how these profound effects were produced.” There has been precious little data, because “scientists were either scared or couldn’t be bothered to overcome the enormous hurdles to get this done.”

Working with the Beckley Foundation, which studies psychoactive drugs and promotes policy reform, Nutt and his colleague Robert Carhart-Harris crowdfunded their study; in the video above, you can hear them both describe the goals and rationale of their research. What they eventually found, The Guardian reports, was that “under the influence, brain networks that deal with vision, attention, movement and hearing became far more connected, leading to what looked like a ‘more unified brain.’”

But at the same time, other networks broke down. Scans revealed a loss of connections between part of the brain called the parahippocampus and another region known as the retrosplenial cortex.

Nutt and his colleagues have more specific experiments planned, he tells Nature, “to look at how LSD can influence creativity, and how the LSD state mimics the dream state.” And just as the drug was tested decades ago as a therapy for addictions and psychiatric disorders, Nutt hopes he can conduct similar trials. But his research has an even larger scope: As Amanda Feilding, director of the Beckley Foundation, puts it, “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.” We look forward to Nutt’s further research findings. Perhaps someday, LSD will be available with a prescription. Until then, it’s probably wise not to try these experiments at home.

Related Content:

Woman Takes LSD in 1956: “I’ve Never Seen Such Infinite Beauty in All My Life,” “I Wish I Could Talk in Technicolor”

Artist Draws Nine Portraits on LSD During 1950s Research Experiment

Ken Kesey Talks About the Meaning of the Acid Tests in a Classic Interview

R. Crumb Describes How He Dropped LSD in the 60s & Instantly Discovered His Artistic Style

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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  • thorozeen says:

    the whole premise is wrong, consciousness is not a biological phenomenon, rather biology is a manifestation of consciousness.

  • Melusine says:

    I really don’t understand how the author of this article found it ok to not even mention the pionnering work of Stanislav Grof on that subject !!!

    Before becoming a worldwide famous psychiatrist and writer, the creator of holotropic breathing was the first to conduct clinical experiments with LSD in order to test its healing potential. After taking it himself and going through a life-changing experience of his own consciousness becoming One with all that is, he successfully tested different microdosages on psychotic patients, as well as in end-of-life care to relieve anxiety in people with uncurable deseases like terminal cancer. The results were astonishing and this very promising treatment, only provided in very safe and supportive therapeutic context, got stopped by Prohibition and the start of “war on drugs”.You can find more information about this in his many books.

    Another crucial point gone missing here is the amazing work that MAPS does (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies)on bringing back the possibility of medical research for psychedelics (among which LSD, but also MDMA, ayahuasca, psylocybin…). Fallowing their work, there is now a couple of norwigian researchers who are advocating for the therapeutic use of MDMA made legal and accessible to the public (see Emmasophia).

    In my opinion it would have been useful to provide such a wider context to reveal how this movement to rehabilitate the “medical” potential of drugs through modern scientific knowledge is actually really international now.

  • Nightspore says:

    I believe the main static image there is mislabeled; it was actually the placebo that show all the orange activity. Bernardo Kastrup has some interesting insights into this story.

  • Ron Pratt says:

    Would be interested in joining your study, I have PTSD, depression

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