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.
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.