The much anticipated results of the LSD Brain Imaging Study

By Justine Alford

LSD brain images

This is a staggering image illustrating how LSD affects brain activity. The brain on the left is placebo and on the right under the influence of LSD.

When Albert Hofmann first created LSD on his lab bench back in 1938, little did he know that he had one of the most powerful psychoactive substances known to man in his hands, one that continues to intrigue and beguile us almost 80 years on. While its profound psychedelic effects are no secret, the underlying mechanisms of action on the brain and consciousness have eluded scientists. Now, thanks to new research partly funded through Walacea, we are finally beginning to unravel these mysteries.

Published in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the investigation was actually the world’s first study to look at the human brain on LSD. While the drug may have been around for a long time, unfortunately its unscientific and unjustified classification as a Schedule 1 drug has greatly hindered research with LSD for half a century.

In 2010, a prominent paper published in the Lancet ranked LSD as the third least harmful of the 20 investigated, with alcohol sitting comfortably at the other end of the spectrum. Not only that, but early clinical studies suggested its ability to increase openness could have therapeutic uses in many mental health conditions, such as depression and addiction. Yet its label as a Schedule 1 drug has meant that research on LSD has been near impossible to gain approval for, or funding.

With crowdfunding increasingly recognised as a way for scientists to be able to carry out the research that they, and the public, are passionate about, the team behind the study joined up with Walacea to reach out to the masses and secure the money they needed to make this study happen. And it’s been a huge success.

After launching at the beginning of March last year, in just over a month the project received more than twice its £25,000 goal, raising a staggering £53,390. In addition, the coverage in the media was overwhelming, reaching audiences all across the globe. Although pledgers received some enticing perks, such as tickets to science seminars or invitations to dinner with the researchers, now it’s time for the real return we have all been waiting for: the results.

“This is a very proud day for us, it’s taken 10 years to achieve this and it’s a very special day,” said Robin Carhartt-Harris at the beginning of his presentation about the findings of the study. When describing the study, Prof Nutt said: “This is the most significant research I have ever done.” Both emphasised how they hope that this research will open up the floodgates for future research into psychedelics and potential medical interventions.

Headed by Imperial College London’s Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, in collaboration with the Beckley/Imperial Research Programme, co-directed by Amanda Feilding and Prof David Nutt, the study involved 20 participants who were either given a placebo injection of salt water or a moderate dose of LSD on two separate days. Volunteers then had their brains scanned using three imaging techniques, which all showed and measured something different: blood flow, connections within and between networks, and brain wave patterns.

Alongside inducing visual hallucinations and profound alterations in consciousness in all participants, LSD was found to exert some fascinating effects on the brain. Certain brain networks that are normally well-connected became destabilized, resulting in a loss of integrity within these networks. In particular, decreased stability within a network called the Default Mode Network, which is active when we’re resting, was strongly linked with self-reported ego dissolution, or the loss of self-identity, and a more fluid state of consciousness.

“Somehow, I was able to comprehend what oneness is,” said one participant. “I had a sense of being inside myself and outside of myself at the same time. I definitely felt removed in some way from what I would usually describe as ‘my self,’” another described.

Alongside these pronounced effects within brain networks, the researchers found that LSD also caused an increase in global integration, with heightened connectivity between distinct brain networks becoming strikingly apparent. In other words, the brain seemed to be functioning in a much freer, more unified manner, something that also correlated with ego-dissolution.

“You could never have predicted the results that we found,” said Prof Nutt at a seminar on the results. “But they make sense.”

Last, but certainly not least, the team gained a fascinating insight into how the drug produces visual hallucinations. Normally, the brain’s primary visual cortex, the region that receives information from our eyes, only “talks” to other areas associated with vision, but upon taking LSD this area “exploded” and began communicating with many other distinct regions. This expansion of visual processing was linked with the degree of complex imagery seen, meaning images other than geometric shapes and flashes, like people and intricate scenes. On top of that, blood flow was boosted to regions involved in vision, despite the fact that their eyes were closed the entire time.

“We’re just scratching the surface,” said Dr Carhart-Harris. “We’re only beginning to understand the effects of psychedelics and their value. Now, we need to fine tune our questions. What is the ego? Can psychedelics produce insight? How? Is the psychedelic state like the dream state?”

Clearly there is much work to be done, but hopefully this work has opened the floodgates for research on psychedelics, and we’re excited to see how the scientific journey unfolds.

Thank you for your support in helping make this amazing research come to life. Be sure to keep up with the Walacea page to find out what other exciting science projects you can back and become a part of! Remember science will happen faster if you support it!

14 Comments

  1. Tom

    Reading this was very insightful and gives me hope for the future of psychedelic research and possible uses in pharmaceutical sciences regarding treatments for all manner of mental illness. I believe everyone can and will benefit from the hyper connectivity that most psychedelics seem to provide, and that even doing them once in a lifetime will be enough to learn a little more about ones true self and of the world. My own experience with psychedelics has already taught me so much. I hope to see more studies like this and the illogical scheduling of this medicine (not drug) to be gone with. It makes me happy to know that the psychedelic community is growing and I thank you for aiding in that process.

    • Natalie Jonk

      Thank you Tom, very insightful comment. We have a few research projects using psychedelics in our pipeline. One is currently under ethical review and is facing quite a few hurdles which is frustrating as it’s an awesome project that we think could have a massive positive impact of the study goes ahead. It’s fantastic that there is such a supporting community keen to see more science in this area! Stay tuned, there should hopefully be more research into psychedelics coming on Walacea! We are also working on a blog at the moment to follow up on the DMT research that successfully funded at the end of last year with Ede Frecska. Natalie

  2. Mark

    It would be interesting to compare with the different psychedelics such as Mescalin, Psylosibin, DMT and many others.

  3. Paul

    Congratulations and a huge thank you for changing and advancing the domain of science. Psychedelics and LSD in particular changed my life and had I not take it, I would’ve been a very different person. It truly made me aware of my self and even my own consciousness when I enter a deeply meditated state. Although I know rely less on it to train without needing any substance, it is a unique experience.
    The ones who need this the most are those in power. Empathy and oneness can make our civilization flourish. To crowfunded science and the Cosmos! Thank you Walacea for making this possible as well. Peace

  4. Danny de Boer

    I’m really glad to see that research is done in this area! As I read about the experience of becoming more identified with the world, I also had the instant idea that it might be beneficial to people suffering from depression(same as stated in the article, since people with depression oftentimes state that they feel disconnected from the world and that their thought process is too rigid. I’d be really happy to see ongoing research investigating the longterm effect on the brain, as well possible downsides.

  5. Roxanne Winergy

    I am curious, the article doesn’t mention whether the brain connections are permanently alerted or do they return to a normal state once the effects ware off? The feeling of oneness described, does it go away with the effects of the drug? It will be interesting to hear the results of a long term study of the lsd and its effects on brain connections and how the effects of modifying the ego can affect the life of the individual. I used to hear a saying from school that said if one took so many doses of lsd, they were pronounced legally insane. That just goes to show how little we really know of the substance.

    • Natalie Jonk

      Thank you for your insights Roxanne, definitely more research is needed to understand potential long term changes to the brain. Some of the research that Robin and David have conducted suggests that psychedelics can help with depression through helping patients gain more perspective on what is troubling them. This is certainly suggestive of the brain adapting to the effects of the drug, however in a positive way. The potential negative effects should not be ignored and more research is certainly needed. We will pass your comments over to the Beckley Foundation, Robin and David and hopefully we can fund an investigation to test long term effects. Natalie

  6. Brandon Bosch

    Congratulations on completing the study and glad to hear the results! Hopefully this is just the start of a renaissance in psychedelic research and understanding.
    However, I’m interested in hearing if there are any significant differences in the results of this study and the research that has previously been done on psilocybin. That would really interesting to hear since all of what was said here about the effects of lsd seems to be stuff we already knew psilocybin could cause.

    • Natalie Jonk

      Thank you Brandon! We will feed this back to Robin, David and Amanda. There is an event on Wednesday evening at the Royal Society in London if you are London based? Maybe you could ask the question in person if you can make it! 🙂

  7. Liam Thomas

    I’m glad to hear that the study was meaningful and well executed. Looking forward to reading of more studies in the future.

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