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This is your brain. This is your brain on LSD

Under the influence of LSD, the brain's visual cortex has increased connectivity with other regions of the brain (right) than when under placebo (left).
Under the influence of LSD, the brain's visual cortex has increased connectivity with other regions of the brain (right) than when under placebo (left). Imperial College London

Cue the Steppenwolf, man, because we’ve got some heavy news to lay on you.

Scientists have published the first images of what the human brain looks like under the influence of LSD, one of the most powerful drugs ever created.

What’s more, the new study by Imperial College London explores what researchers say are potential medical uses for the illegal psychedelic known as acid, including treating mental health disorders.

Heavy, right?

“For brain researchers, studying how psychedelic drugs such as LSD alter the ‘normal’ brain state is a way to study the biological phenomenon that is consciousness,” David Nutt, a neuropsychopharmacologist at Imperial College London and senior researcher on the study, told the science journal Nature.

“We ultimately would also like to see LSD deployed as a therapeutic tool.”

Nutt told England’s The Guardian that neuroscientists have waited 50 years for this breakthrough.

“This is to neuroscience what the Higgs boson was to particle physics,” he said. “We didn’t know how these profound effects were produced. It was too difficult to do. Scientists were either scared or couldn’t be bothered to overcome the enormous hurdles to get this done.”

The brain scans of 20 healthy volunteers who agreed to be injected with LSD in the name of science showed researchers something they’d never seen before: The neural basis for those wild hallucinations LSD users experience.

The volunteers were tested on two separate days. One day they received an injection of LSD, next they got a placebo.

Using three different brain imaging techniques, including a resting state MRI, scientists measured blood flow, brainwaves and functional connections inside the brain.

“Under normal conditions, information from our eyes is processed in a part of the brain at the back of the head called the visual cortex,” the researchers said in a statement. “However, when the volunteers took LSD, many additional brain areas — not just the visual cortex — contributed to visual processing.”

Under a hallucinogenic state, brain activity lit up like a pinball machine. Brain networks that affect vision, attention, hearing and movement became more connected than usual, creating what one researcher called a “more unified brain.”

“We found that under LSD, compared to placebo, disparate regions in the brain communicate with each other when they don’t normally do so,” Nutt said.

“In particular, the visual cortex increases its communication with other areas of the brain, which helps explain the vivid and complex hallucinations experienced under LSD, and the emotional flavor they can take.”

Other scans showed that different parts of the brain that normally “network” became more separated under LSD’s influence, making the user feel that trippy, “oneness with the world,” sensation - a loss of personal identity that researchers call “ego dissolution.”

“This experience is sometimes framed in a religious or spiritual way — and seems to be associated with improvements in well-being after the drug’s effects have subsided,” Robin Carhart-Harris, a research associate at Imperial College, told CNN.

Carhart-Harris became known two years ago in England as the first person in the country to have legally administered doses of LSD to human volunteers since the drug was banned there in 1971.

The idea of using LSD, or lysergic acid diethylamide, for therapeutic purposes goes back several decades. It was first manufactured in Switzerland in the 1930s to treat psychiatric disorders.

It was used that way through the ‘50s and ‘60s until the hippie generation discovered its hallucinogenic power and turned it into a recreational psychedelic. The drug was banned around the world, hindering further research and study of any medical applications.

“In the 1950s and ‘60s thousands of people took LSD for alcoholism; in 2012, a retrospective analysis of some of these studies suggested that it helped cut down on drinking,” Nutt told Nature.

“Since the 1970s there have been lots of studies with LSD on animals, but not on the human brain. We need that data to validate the trial of this drug as a potential therapy for addiction or depression.”

For instance, Nutt said the drug, through its effects on brain networks, could pull the brain out of negative thought patterns seen in depression and addiction.

Scientists and researchers like Nutt want the world to rethink LSD’s purpose. For instance, another part of the Imperial College group’s research showed listening to music while taking LSD triggered interesting changes in the brain.

The combination of LSD and music altered the activity of the visual cortex, causing it to receive more information from an area of the brain called the parahippocampus.

The parahippocampus is involved with memory and mental imagery. The more it “spoke” to the visual cortex, the more complex visions people experienced, including seeing scenes from their lives.

“This is the first time we have witnessed the interaction of a psychedelic compound and music with the brain's biology,” said PhD student Mendel Kaelen, who worked on the music portion of the LSD research.

“A major focus for future research is how we can use the knowledge gained from our current research to develop more effective therapeutic approaches for treatments such as depression; for example, music listening and LSD may be a powerful therapeutic combination if provided in the right way.”

Like we said, cue the Steppenwolf.

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