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article imageRevealed: What LSD does to the brain

By Tim Sandle     Apr 12, 2016 in Science
Brain imaging has provided researchers with the first ever look about how LSD causes its profound effects on human consciousness.
Scientists working at Imperial College London enlist a group of volunteers, who agreed to take LSD, so that scans could be taken of the brains of the volunteers as they experienced their "trip." The images have revealed a neural basis to what is one of the most powerful drugs created.
Lysergic acid diethylamide (or LSD) is a psychedelic drug known for its psychological effects. The mind-bending effects were discovered accidentally when chemist Albert Hofmann inadvertently ingested the chemical in his laboratory, 73 years ago. The discovery led to a combination of scientific studies and recreational drug use, with the common 'experience' reported by users being the so-called "dissolution of the ego," whereby users experienced becoming detached from themselves.
For the study, the researchers, who had obtained special permission from the British government for the study, administered 20 volunteers with infusions over two days. One infusion contained 75 micrograms of LSD; wheras the other infusion was an innocuous placebo. When receiving the infusion, the study participants laid inside a scanner and had their brains imaged.
MRI scans showed that default mode network of the brain became less coordinated, and the effects became more noticeable with those study participants who, based on a pre-study questionnaire, appeared to have the greater ego. Thus the researchers concluded this brain network underlies a stable sense of self.
Imaging methods show different sections of the brain  under the influence of LSD or a placebo.
Imaging methods show different sections of the brain, under the influence of LSD or a placebo.
Imperial/Beckley Foundation
Another effect noted were higher levels of alpha rhythms, which, previous studies have indicated, are associated with high-level human consciousness. To add to this, there appeared to more intensive communication between areas within the brain(responsible for vision, hearing and movement) along with a breakdown of other networks linked with the parahippocampus and the retrosplenial cortex. In a sense, a 'smaller brain' was temporarily created and this may account for the visual hallucinations that often accompany use of LSD.
Speaking with New Scientist magazine about the study outcomes one of the researchers, Robin Carhart-Harris, explained: "This is why psychedelics in general but also LSD are special. They really alter consciousness in this fundamental way and therefore they are very powerful tools to understand the nature of consciousness."
One aim of the researchers is to re-open the debate about the use of LSD for the treatment of mood disorders and forms of mental illness. Research into this area, using LSD, was underway during the 1960s until it was abandoned following international agreement.
Amanda Feilding, from the Beckley Foundation, enthused to The Guardian newspaper: “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.”
The outcome of the study is published in the journal PNAS, contained in the research paper "Neural correlates of the LSD experience revealed by multimodal neuroimaging."
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