New studies given researchers an unprecedented insight into the neural basis for effects produced by one of the most powerful drugs ever created. One study could pave the way for LSD or related chemicals to be used to treat psychiatric disorders. Researchers suggest the drug could pull the brain out of thought patterns seen in depression and addiction through its effects on brain networks.
Amanda Feilding, director of the Beckley Foundation that helped fund the study said, said: “We are finally unveiling the brain mechanisms underlying the potential of LSD, not only to heal but also to deepen our understanding of consciousness itself.” A study appearing in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reveals how LSD reverses the more restricted thinking we develop from infancy to adulthood.
While it was associated with the dark side of 60s counterculture, in the early 50s the military were researching its capability as a potential chemical weapon. They found that LSD would render military forces indifferent to their surroundings and it could be used to create confusion and apprehension: what we might call terror. From 1966, it was banned in California and other US states followed. Of course, it resurfaced again in the 90s at raves, its use dropping again by 2000.
But it’s only now that some of the studies about what psychedelics do are being resumed. Now, with the result of much more sophisticated brain imaging, scientists can see some of what is happening and there appears a possibility that these drugs could be helpful for some people. Some people. “Turn on, tune in, drop out” is hardly the spirit du jour. Instead, City boys and students stuff themselves full of smart drugs such as modafinal to pull all-nighters.
At Imperial College, researchers have been looking at the effects of psilocybin (the psychedelic component of magic mushrooms) on 20 people with severe depression for whom all other treatments failed. Many showed some improvement. Jamie Bartlett made an interesting program about the possible therapeutic effects of experiencing a looser form of consciousness; MDMA, after all, was used originally in marriage guidance sessions.
The present findings offer a comprehensive new perspective on the changes in brain activity characterizing the LSD state, enabling us to make confident new inferences about its functional neuroanatomy. The present study sheds new light on the relationship between changes in spontaneous brain activity and psychedelic-induced visual hallucinations. The present data also inform on another fundamental question; namely, how do psychedelics alter brain function to (so profoundly) alter consciousness? Interestingly, although the effects of LSD on the visual system were pronounced, they did not significantly correlate with its more fundamental effects on consciousness.
Some compare the complex visual hallucinations associated with LSD to the undifferentiated nature of the infant mind. This can bring about both self-awareness and well-being, which may help certain depressives, addicts and people with OCD. These are small experiments with small numbers of people, but there have long been unofficial reports of MDMA helping those with Parkinson’s. But too many are scared to go there.
When the present results are considered in relation to previous human neuroimaging studies with psychedelics, some general principles emerge. It seems increasingly evident that psychedelics reduce the stability and integrity of well-established brain networks and simultaneously reduce the degree of separateness or segregation between them; that is, they induce network disintegration and desegregation. Importantly, these effects are consistent with the more general principle that cortical brain activity becomes more “entropic” under psychedelics.
In many psychiatric disorders, the brain may be viewed as having become entrenched in pathology, such that core behaviors become automated and rigid. Consistent with their “entropic” effect on cortical activity, psychedelics may work to break down such disorders by dismantling the patterns of activity on which they rest.
At a time when mindfulness and every other yoga class promises nirvana, why we are so afraid that we could just reach transcendence through a pill? This seems neither natural nor properly mystical, and so befuddled are our politicians that they have stalled on their lunatic psychoactive substances bill, as even they could not identify drugs that have yet to be invented.
If transcendence is available chemically, organised religion becomes little more than what Aldous Huxley recognized as a system of rites and sacraments and hierarchies. Huxley was less keen on the plebs having access to what Jack Kerouac called “the golden eternity”.
As is clear the world over, in the war on drugs, drugs won.