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A Brain On LSD Looks Like A Psychotic Brain, Says New Study

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According to a fascinating new study, LSD literally reorganizes your brain.

Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris, the first English scientist in over 40 years to test LSD on humans according to the Independent, gathered a team at Imperial College of London and tested the drug on 20 volunteers over six hours, in what must have been one of the most sought-after volunteer opportunities of all time. All 20 were given safe doses of LSD, then underwent fMRIs and MEGs — both ways of measuring and picturing brain function.

Here's what they found: 

Brains on LSD don't work as a cohesive unit. In a healthy and unmedicated brain, neurons work within networks to fire in an orchestrated way. Our visual, auditory and spacial experiences all rely on these parts of the brain "talking" to each other methodically and predictably. However, when a brain is on LSD, that process dissolves. Parts of the brain stop talking to each other reliably, and those neurons that once fired in tandem will fire randomly. Conversely, parts of the brain that didn't used to work together start overlapping, perhaps accounting for reported senses of "smelling colors" or "hearing sounds." It's no wonder, then, that the user may experience chaotic visions, sounds and feelings; the brain itself is in chaos.

A brain on LSD looks a lot like a psychotic brain. Earhart-Harris says that these images of a brain on LSD look a lot like a brain right before a psychotic episode. In both cases, neurons that used to work together start firing out of sync, and neurons that normally wouldn't work together suddenly do. 

A brain on LSD is self-absorbed. The scans showed that the electrical activity of the brain slowed down substantially, mimicking the sorts of wave patterns doctors see during visual hallucinations. This led the team to believe that a brain on LSD is "tethered more to the internal than to the external world."

Better understanding LSD's effects on the brain could have far-reaching benefits, from treating psychosis to considering LSD-derivatives in the treatment of conditions like addiction. LSD was once offered by prescription under the brand name Delysid, and according to a 2012 meta-analysis, the drug curbed addiction in 59 percent of patients. By contrast, the success rate of Alcoholics Anonymous is between five and 10 percent. Interestingly, even the founder of AA believed that LSD should be incorporated into the treatment of alcoholism.

"[W]ith better assessment tools available today than in the 1950s and 1960s," says Carhart-Harris, "it may be possible to evaluate potential uses of LSD as a treatment for addiction and other disorders, such as treatment-resistant depression — which we are currently investigating with a similar drug to LSD."

The study was published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, and is available online through ScienceDaily.

Photo: Inger Lise M. Johnsen | Flickr

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