A Friday Factoid was written by this writer in November 2015 about the research behind psychedelic-assisted therapy. Several studies have shown that positive results can come from short courses or single sessions of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy.
Until recently, there had been no modern brain images of someone on lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) to show exactly how this drug affects the brain’s connections.
Researcher David Nutt, a neuropsychopharmacologist at Imperial College London, performed a recent two-day study with twenty healthy volunteers. On one day volunteers got a 75-microgram injection of LSD, and on the second day, they got a placebo. Researchers used three different brain imaging techniques to measure and compare blood flow, brainwaves, and functional connections within and between brain networks in volunteers on the placebo and under the influence of the drug. David Nutt stated about the discovery, “This is to neuroscience what the Higgs boson was to particle physics.” Consider that neuroscientist have waited over 50 years for these images since the drug was banned in the 1960s.
What researchers found sheds lights on how people who have taken psychedelics have reported feeling they are “one with nature” and that the self “dissolved.” The regions of the brain responsible for higher cognition lit up and suddenly become hyper-connected with other networks in the brain that do not normally communicate with one another. The study’s volunteers on LSD reported experiencing their sense of self dissolve, which is what researchers’ call “ego dissolution.” For people, ego dissolution can be a positive experience leading to peace, acceptance, and a new perspective of things.
Volunteers taking LSD appeared to process their visual world in fundamentally different ways from people who were not given the drug. Typically, the activity in our brain flows along specific neural networks. Although the primary visual cortex usually communicates mainly with other parts of the vision system, many other brain areas contributed to the processing of images in volunteers who received LSD. The visual cortex became much more active with the rest of the brain, and blood flow to visual regions also increased, which the researchers believe correlates with the hallucinations reported by volunteers and the emotional experience they can take.
Enzo Tagliazucchi, a neuroscientist who helped lead the study said, “This could mean that LSD results in a stronger sharing of information between regions that deal with how we perceive ourselves and how we perceive the outer world.” For example, LSD appeared to trigger the frontoparietal cortex, which is an area of the brain associated with self-consciousness, and strongly connect it with areas of the brain that process sensory information about the world outside ourselves. That interconnectedness may be creating a stronger link between our sense of self, sense of the environment, and potentially diluting the boundaries of our individuality.
The study found that the increased interconnectedness of brain regions, while on LSD, makes the brain of an adult resemble something like the brain of a baby, which is more free and unconstrained. In the adult brain, networks that control vision, movement, and hearing function separately. LSD lifts the barriers between these networks and stimulates the unconstrained flow of information between them that leads to a hyper-imaginative state of thinking.
Researchers found that communication between the parahippocampus, a brain region important in memory storage and the visual cortex, is reduced when you take LSD. When you hear music the visual cortex receives more information from the parahippocampus, and this is associated with increases in imagery with your eyes closed. Music appears to enhance the LSD experience and might be important in therapeutic settings. This could have great implications in the treatment of depression, addiction, or other mental disorders that emphasize negative thoughts. The improvement of well-being does not appear to subside after the drug has worn off.
Brodwin, E. (2016, April 12). Mind-Blowing New Images Show How LSD Changes The Way Parts of the Brain Communicate. Business Insider. Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com/new-images-show-how-lsd-and-psychedelics-affect-the-brain-2016-4
Sample, I. (2016, April 11). LSD’s Impact On The Brain Revealed In Groundbreaking Images. The Guardian. Retreived from https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/apr/11/lsd-impact-brain-revealed-groundbreaking-images
Schlanger, Z. (2016, April 12). Brain Scans Show Why LSD Makes You Feel One With Nature And Your Self Dissolve. News Week. Retrieved from http://www.newsweek.com/2016/04/22/lsd-brain-scan-nature-self-psychedelics-446513.html
Jonathan Torres, M.S.
WKPIC Pre-Doctoral Intern