What Happens To The Brain Under The Influence Of LSD?

Ever wondered what LSD does to the brain? Well, aside from making people stare at the wall for six hours and suddenly decide that Syd Barrett solo records are worth revisiting, of course.

Researchers are constantly looking for potential medical uses for the drug and in 2016 a team of specialists at Imperial College London managed to come up with a visualisation of the effects of the drug on the brain.

Most clearly depicted in the images are the changes in brain activity - the oft-cited 'altered state of consciousness' - produced by the drug, with parts of the organ that contribute to vision more active than usual, which can result in hallucinations.

Credit: Imperial College London
Credit: Imperial College London

The man who led the research, Dr Robin Carhart-Harris of the Department of Medicine at ICL, 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."

He continued: "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."

Credit: Imperial College London
Credit: Imperial College London

"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."

LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) was first synthesised in 1938 by a Swiss chemist called Albert Hofmann and became well known for its psychedelic qualities, largely after Hofmann himself had accidentally ingested some.

He got a bit of a taste for it and continued to inject himself with the drug for analytical purposes and described the experience as being 'affected by a remarkable restlessness, combined with a slight dizziness'.

"At home, I lay down and sank into a not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination," he said in a report at the time.

A sheet of LSD tabs. Credit: PA
A sheet of LSD tabs. Credit: PA

"In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed (I found the daylight to be unpleasantly glaring), I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors. After some two hours this condition faded away."

LSD was taken up for medical use in 1947 and used to treat people with psychiatric problems, before being used by the CIA during the Cold War period. It was a popular drug among hippies and members of the 1960s counterculture before finally being banned in 1968.

Featured Image Credit: 20th Century Fox

Mike Wood

Mike Meehall Wood is a freelance journalist and translator. He writes for LADbible, VICE and countless sports publications, focusing on rugby league, football and boxing. He is a graduate of Leeds University and maintains a fizzy pop obsession. Contact Mike at [email protected]

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