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Neuroscience

Your Brain On LSD

LSD is known to trigger hallucinations and unhinge one’s state of consciousness through mild and rapid changes in mood and perception. Ironically enough, this potent drug may also be a potential game-changer in treating mental disorders, specifically depression.

By Neha Menon

Published 4:30 PM EST, Fri February 26, 2021

Introduction

LSD (Lysergic acid diethylamide) is one element of a wide ranging group of drugs called psychedelics. The primary use of psychedelics is to trigger “non-ordinary states of consciousness”[6], and to alter several cognitive functions such as perception and mood (Wikipedia). LSD specifically works by triggering hallucinations, hence being known as a hallucinogenic drug. But what exactly does LSD do to the human brain? And how can it potentially be used to ease the struggles of thousands of depressed individuals? 

LSD – A Brief History 

In 1938, Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman synthesized LSD for the first time. The fungus that LSD was taken from is said to cause convulsions, madness, and even death. Fun fact: April 19th is still celebrated as “Bicycle Day” in honor of the famous day on which Hoffman rode his bike home after taking LSD for the first time, and experienced an insane inward “trip.” In 1947, Sandoz Laboratories encouraged the intake of LSD by advertising it to be “a cure for everything from schizophrenia to criminal behavior, ‘sexual perversions’ and alcoholism”[6]  (Wikipedia).

It was soon discovered that as little as 25 micrograms of LSD is enough to stimulate vivid hallucinations. The official ban of this drug in the United States in 1967 shows how widely it was abused–while some used it to escape reality, others (specifically the military) began exploring its potential as a chemical weapon. However, many had begun noticing that the use of LSD caused them severe anxiety and depression, while others reported being unable to feel “normal,” and feeling a sense of disconnection from reality.

How LSD Produces Hallucinations 

Firstly, it is important to understand that LSD works by affecting several nerve receptors, such as the dopamine, adrenergic, and serotonin receptors. The last one is particularly interesting and relevant to the functioning of this drug. There is a type of serotonin, known as 5-HT2A, that has a role in the visual cortex. When inside you, LSD affects this particular cell surface receptor. This is the primary cause for the “trippy” visuals.

LSD study reveals why acid trips last so long | Drugs | The Guardian
Photograph: Fredrik Skold/Alamy

The Inner-Workings of LSD 

How exactly LSD affects the brain, and why it gives the results it does, have been subjects of study throughout the years. Researchers from Imperial College London, along with Beckley Foundation, have successfully visualized these effects, and the findings were published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The following are some major takeaways:

  • Although visuals images are typically processed in the visual cortex, several other brain areas contribute to processing visuals when your brain is on LSD. 
  • In Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris’ words: “We observed brain changes under LSD that suggested our volunteers were ‘seeing with their eyes shut’; as in, they were seeing things from their imagination rather than from the outside world.” [2] 
  • The research group also observed that, despite the volunteers’ eyes being closed, the part of the brain involved in visual processing was accompanied by many other parts of the brain. Furthermore, the size of this effect correlated with volunteers’ ratings of complex, dreamlike visions, meaning that complexity was directly proportional to the involvement of other parts of the brain. 
  • Visuals are processed in the visual cortex, movement in the cerebellum, and hearing in the auditory cortex. Notice that these are individual and separate areas of the brain. While on LSD, the level of ‘separateness’ is lower, and the processing of several functions may overlap one another, or unify. 
what does it feel like on an acid trip?

How LSD May Potentially Treat Mental Illnesses

After learning how LSD drastically alters one’s state of consciousness, how is it that this potent psychedelic can be used in treating depression? A lot more research is required to fully understand this (since, as seen in the above image, depression is a potential side effect of the extreme use of LSD), but one of the known  methods is: micro-dosing. People such as Ayelet Waldman–an author who had personal experience with the subtle effects of LSD under smaller doses–believe micro-dosing can help a depressed individual feel better while avoiding hallucinations as a side effect. It may also provide enough of a sense of disconnection from reality to make one’s intrusive thoughts less overwhelming. It is important to note that LSD depression therapy is only available to those who sign up for clinical trials.

Dangers & Disadvantages of LSD Treatment

The effects of LSD–both negative and positive–have yet to be researched thoroughly enough. In my opinion, the use of the drug to cure depression is very risky. Different drugs produce different levels of compatibility amongst a large, diverse population. And, in this case, the difference between a ‘good’ versus a ‘bad’ trip may be too big of a risk for someone with an already compromised state of mental health to undertake. Serious side effects such as increased anxiety, or potentially violent depressive episodes due to flashbacks from bad experience with the drug are to be wary of.

Note: LSD is known to have several side effects on the brain, both short term and long term. It is illegal to sell or intake LSD in most places, so self-treatment or ingestion is not recommended. 

Neha Menon, Youth Medical Journal 2021

References

Foundation for a Drug-Free World International. “The History of LSD – Acid, Albert Hoffman & Timothy Leary – Drug-Free World.” Foundation for a Drug-Free World, www.drugfreeworld.org/drugfacts/lsd/a-short-history.html. Accessed 21 Feb. 2021. [1]

Neuroscience News. “This Is Your Brain on LSD.” Neuroscience News, 12 Apr. 2016, neurosciencenews.com/lsd-neuroimaging-visual-cortex-4023. [2]

Sample, Ian. “Why Does LSD Make You Hallucinate?” The Guardian, 22 Feb. 2017, www.theguardian.com/science/2006/feb/25/drugs.thisweekssciencequestions. [3]

The Recovery Village. “LSD and Depression.” The Recovery Village Drug and Alcohol Rehab, 15 Jan. 2020, www.therecoveryvillage.com/lsd-addiction/related-topics/lsd-and-depression. [4]

Wendorf, Marcia. “The Resurgence of Psychedelics: Magic Mushrooms and LSD.” The Resurgence of Psychedelics: Magic Mushrooms and LSD, 9 Aug. 2019, interestingengineering.com/the-resurgence-of-psychedelics-magic-mushrooms-and-lsd. [5]Wikipedia contributors. “Psychedelic Drug.” Wikipedia, 17 Feb. 2021, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychedelic_drug. [6]

By Neha Menon

Neha is a student from India who is passionate about psychology and neuroscience and loves researching on these topics. She hopes to build a career around clinical psychology.

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