Washington D.C.: We have known for some time that LSD use may make users see psychedelic rainbow visions and lose his sense of self, but now a team of researchers has shed light on exactly what happens in the brain.
In a series of experiments, scientists from Imperial College London, working with the Beckley Foundation, have gained a glimpse into how the psychedelic compound affects brain activity.
The team administered LSD (Lysergic acid diethylamide) to 20 healthy volunteers in a specialist research centre and used various leading-edge and complementary brain scanning techniques to visualise how LSD alters the way the brain works.
A major finding of the research is the discovery of what happens in the brain when people experience complex dreamlike hallucinations under LSD. Under normal conditions, information from our eyes is processed in a part of the brain at the back of the head called the visual cortex. However, when the volunteers took LSD, many additional brain areas - not just the visual cortex - contributed to visual processing.
Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, who led the research, explained: "We observed brain changes under LSD that suggested our volunteers were 'seeing with their eyes shut' - albeit they were seeing things from their imagination rather than from the outside world. We saw that many more areas of the brain than normal were contributing to visual processing under LSD - even though the volunteers' eyes were closed. Furthermore, the size of this effect correlated with volunteers' ratings of complex, dreamlike visions. "
The study also revealed what happens in the brain when people report a fundamental change in the quality of their consciousness under LSD.
Dr Carhart-Harris explained: "Normally our brain consists of independent networks that perform separate specialised functions, such as vision, movement and hearing - as well as more complex things like attention. However, under LSD the separateness of these networks breaks down and instead you see a more integrated or unified brain.
"Our results suggest that this effect underlies the profound altered state of consciousness that people often describe during an LSD experience. It is also related to what people sometimes call 'ego-dissolution', which means the normal sense of self is broken down and replaced by a sense of reconnection with themselves, others and the natural world. This experience is sometimes framed in a religious or spiritual way - and seems to be associated with improvements in well-being after the drug's effects have subsided."
Dr Carhart-Harris added: "Our brains become more constrained and compartmentalised as we develop from infancy into adulthood, and we may become more focused and rigid in our thinking as we mature. In many ways, the brain in the LSD state resembles the state our brains were in when we were infants: free and unconstrained. This also makes sense when we consider the hyper-emotional and imaginative nature of an infant's mind."
The study appears in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).