Here’s How LSD Really Affects Your Brain

Illustrated by Jenny Kraemer.
Although it's been nearly eight decades since LSD was first created, there is still plenty that researchers don't know about the drug. That's partially because the laws used to keep it out of the hands of the general public have also made it very difficult to study for the past 50 years. But now, a group of determined scientists is bringing our understanding of the drug where it's never been before: In their latest study, they take a very close look at the way LSD affects the brain — using modern technology. The study, published online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is actually partly the result of a crowdfunding campaign. Through that campaign, researchers at The Beckley Foundation and Imperial College London raised over $70,000 (more than twice their goal) to examine the way LSD affects the human brain. For this study, the researchers gave 20 participants LSD and used three different techniques to see how their brains reacted. Results showed increased activation in some areas (such as those relating to vision) and decreased activation in others. In particular, researchers saw less connection between parts of participants' "default-mode networks." Normally this area is associated with our sense of self and is activated when we think of statements directed towards us — or about planning for the future. "Under LSD, the separateness of these networks breaks down, and instead you see a more integrated or unified brain," said Robin Carhart-Harris, PhD, lead author on the study, in a press release. "Our results suggest that this effect underlies the profound altered state of consciousness that people often describe during an LSD experience." In particular, he says this could shed some light on the phenomenon of "ego death," in which "the normal sense of self is broken down and replaced by a sense of reconnection with themselves, others, and the natural world." As we're learning more about the ways these drugs might actually benefit us (especially those of us dealing with mental health issues), finding out how they work is just as important. Previously, Dr. Carhart-Harris's work has suggested that psychedelic drugs such as LSD cause us to make connections we otherwise wouldn't make, because those patterns of brain activation are altered. And this new research suggests LSD makes that easier by leveling the playing field for those connections to take place — and potentially stopping intrusive or repetitive thoughts from taking hold. Of course, way more research is needed before your psychiatrist is going to prescribe you acid (or MDMA or 'shrooms). But studies like this are bringing us closer to that possibility than we've ever been before.

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