By Will Hayward 12/04/2016

We have this idea that Science tells us about how the world is, and is unaffected by politics and morality.

Sure, the real world may ignore Science – so that vast knowledge about the causes and likely effects of global climate change have been waved off by many politicians. But scientists still study that stuff, right? The knowledge is all there once we decide that we’ll pay attention, isn’t it?

Not necessarily. One of the bizarre aspects of the gun debate in the US is that despite gun violence being a leading cause of death in the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are forbidden from funding research that might study ways to reduce the carnage. So even if states or cities would like to be guided by Science, that knowledge is simply not there.  The same is true of illegal drugs.

The brain on drugs

Half of all New Zealanders aged 16-64 have used illegal drugs during their lifetimes and about 16% have used them within the last 12 months. One feature these drugs have in common is that they alter one’s state of consciousness, which means that they change functioning in the brain. We have some understanding of these processes, mainly from studies that compare users and non-users. But what is happening in the brain as someone is in the act of taking a drug? On this we have relatively little evidence for most illegal drugs.

One of my colleagues, Suresh Muthkumaraswamy, has been involved in an interesting study of this type, looking at the effects of LSD on the brain. Suresh, who works in both Psychology and Pharmacy at the University of Auckland, has just had the study, done with colleagues from the UK, Brazil, Germany, and Canada, published in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They conducted a brain imaging study of volunteers who came to the lab on two different days. On one day, they received a placebo via i.v.; on the other day, the i.v. gave them small but potent amounts of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). Over the next few hours their brain activity was measured with several different techniques. Participants also completed questionnaires to give insight into their subjective experiences.

The brain on LSD

LSD is known to induce at least two major changes in consciousness; (1) visual hallucination, and (2) changes in one’s relationship with the world, which might be termed “ego dissolution.” The study showed distinct patterns of neural activity that seemed to drive each of these. It is well known that visual processing is largely conducted by regions at the back of the brain, and under LSD these regions showed greater than normal activation, particularly when participants reported that they were experiencing highly vivid hallucinations, and stronger connections with other areas of the brain.


On the other hand, regions that code an individual’s relationship with world, such as the parahippocampal region, seemed to influence “ego dissolution.” When people felt that their consciousness was starting to disintegrate, these brain regions started disconnecting from each other.

The study of widely-used but morally-questionable substances

These results are fascinating because they allow us greater understanding of what is happening to the brain under pharmacological interventions. But is there any underlying value beyond this? Some of the psychological effects of LSD are highly similar to those that occur in disorders such as schizophrenia. Therefore, the tantalizing promise of research like this is that it gives a controllable, reversible way of studying the brain under conditions that occur naturally in some people. Such work requires us to spread Science into the study of widely-used but morally-questionable substances. Let’s hope we can find careful, highly controlled ways of continuing this fascinating work.


This study can be found here:

To see more work by Dr Suresh Muthukumaraswamy, click here:

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