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Taking a trip to planet brain: exploring consciousness with LSD

ByKarolina Zieba

Feb 13, 2019

Astronauts go on trips to outer space in the name of scientific exploration. Regular people take trips into their consciousness with exactly the same intentions. Or at least, they’re starting to. Although the outlawing of LSD had a massive impact on scientific research on its effects, interest in the potential of psychedelic substances is growing. From studies on the mental health benefits of psilocybin – the active ingredient of magic mushrooms- to crowdfunded research into LSD microdosing, it appears as though scientists are pushing back against the legislative setbacks imposed on them by misguided politicians.

A research team led by Katrin H. Preller from the University Hospital for Psychiatry in Zurich managed to successfully get around legislation in their study to help uncover exactly how Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (aka LSD) induces altered states of consciousness.

LSD is a potent psychedelic that is able to alter consciousness in a profound and specific way. It causes visual hallucinations, a distorted sense of time, quickly shifting emotions and mystical sensations. It alters one’s sense of self and sometimes causes what is often referred to as ‘ego-death,’ or the complete dissolution of self. Clearly, LSD, by some curious mechanism, influences our perception, thought and consciousness. It is therefore plausible to use LSD to study just that. The substance has a unique potential to show the neuropharmacological and mechanistic understanding of the human body.

Preller aimed to investigate a theory proposed over a decade ago that LSD causes the thalamus to filter information differently. Some have gone as far as to suggest it stops filtering information altogether, but Preller and other researchers have shown this to be false.

In most people, the thalamus prevents information from uncontrollably flooding the cortex to avoid information overload. The thalamus is in charge of relaying motor and sensory signals to the cerebral cortex. The cerebral cortex, on the other hand, is the largest centre of neural integration in the central nervous system and is a major player in perception, awareness, thought and consciousness. With brain scans and modelling tools, Preller illustrated that LSD allows this kind of information overload to the cerebral cortex to happen. It also allowed more information to flow from the thalamus to the posterior cingulate cortex, hindering the flow of signals to the temporal cortex, both of which are associated with awareness, memory, language comprehension and emotion association.

The question of consciousness is often a philosophical one, but science being a largely inductive practice, we must assume that what we experience is real. It is unclear what mechanisms in the brain give rise to the LSD experience, however discovering more about our brains certainly should be prioritized over political ambitions. Legislation preventing the study of LSD not only inhibits this curious pursuit. It prevents the study of the brain and its many functions. It prevents potential treatments for brain disorders and mental health problems. It prevents the discovery of treatments of addiction and all the many things that our brains are responsible for.

Illustration: Hannah Robinson

By Karolina Zieba

Karolina is a former Science Editor and Editor-in-Chief of The Student newspaper. She is also an editor for EuSci magazine and contributes to The National Student and the Oxford Scientist. She is interested in the relationship between science and society.

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