By Victoria Turk
We’ve never seen the brain on LSD.
When research into psychedelics had its heyday in the 60s, imaging tools like MRI scanners weren’t really around, and the taboo around psychedelic drugs has meant research since then is difficult and uncommon.
But an upcoming study will offer a first peek; it’s the first brain imaging study to look at a human brain on LSD. For this research, volunteers took the drug (it was of clinical quality, not the kind you get on the street) and had their brains imaged by fMRI and MEG scanners.
You can’t see the images just yet, however. The study won’t be published until later this year, and the team don’t want to jeopardise that in any way by releasing data ahead of time. They still have a lot of work to complete on this, and other studies they’re doing on psychedelics. Not only does that take time, but it requires funding—which is why they’re asking the public to help with a newly launched crowdfunding campaign.
The study is conducted by researchers David Nutt and Robin Carhart-Harris at Imperial College London, in conjunction with the Beckley Foundation, an organisation that helps fund studies on controlled psychoactive substances and works to reform drug policy.
“It’s always been my aim to research LSD,” Amanda Feilding, the founder and director of the Beckley Foundation, told me. “In fact, that’s why I set up the Beckley Foundation very largely, because I think it’s an amazingly valuable compound, which can have many therapeutic benefits.”
She hopes that “the very best science” will help overcome the taboo on the drug and encourage exploration into how it might help in therapies for conditions such as addiction, depression, and even cluster headaches.
“Apart from that, it’s an amazing tool to explore the mechanisms underlying consciousness itself,” she added.
“We must not play politics with promising science”
But science is expensive, and funding can be even harder to come by when you’re working on something controversial. At the moment, LSD—along with other drugs the researchers have studied, such as cannabis, MDMA, and psilocybin (magic mushrooms)—are classed as Schedule 1 drugs in the UK, which means they are considered not to have therapeutic value and are therefore most strictly controlled.
Nutt said in a statement that, “Despite the incredible potential of this drug to further our understanding of the brain, political stigma has silenced research. We must not play politics with promising science that has so much potential for good.”
Feilding explained they were turning to crowdfunding as a possible new way to raise money for research that many people worldwide have expressed interest in. The campaign launches today on Walacea, a UK-based platform specifically aimed at securing funding for scientific research. It is looking to raise £25,000 (about $38,000).
“The thing is, there is an immense amount of work which needs to be done in this field,” Feilding said. She compared it to an orchard where “the fruit hasn’t been plucked.”
One advantage for those funding the LSD image study is that, as the work has already started, results won’t take years to materialise. Feilding hopes to do more LSD studies in the future, including one that investigates LSD and creativity.
For now, she says it will be “very exciting” to see the first brain images and explore the data, which should give an indication of which parts of the brain are functioning.
However, she emphasised that brain imaging is just one part of the puzzle and more work needs to be done: “It gives a better picture, but it’s not the final picture at all.”