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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