How a party drug could become the next big antidepression treatment

on Sep14

Under the influence of LSD, the brain's visual cortex has increased connectivity with other brain regions (right) than when imaged under placebo (left).

Source: Imperial College London

Under the influence of LSD, the brain’s visual cortex has increased connectivity with other brain regions (right) than when imaged under placebo (left).

For example, a team of researchers in the U.K. last year became the first ever to produce images of the human brain on LSD — a remarkable fact, considering how widely the drug has been consumed over the past 50 years. But the obstacles to working with the drug were simply too great, said Professor David Nutt, a neuropsychopharmacologist at Imperial College and an author of the study. “The illegal status of LSD meant that researchers were scared, and the costs of complying with the regulations were prohibitive, and governments wouldn’t fund the research because the drugs were illegal.”

Still, the results of the scans strongly suggested that LSD could help treat depression in much the way psilocybin does. “It switches off regions of the brain that are overactive in depression,” Nutt said. It also disrupts communication between certain sections of the brain, producing an “ego dissolution” that helps users feel more connected to the world around them.

Such results are going a long way toward easing the path for researchers who want to explore these drugs. As is the existence of groups like MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies), which has helped secure private funding for much of the research on these drugs — a notoriously difficult endeavor given the stigma surrounding them.

Of course, MAPS is not the first group to advocate for the legal use of psychedelics. And hopes of a breakthrough in the area seem to arise every decade or so, suggesting the path to FDA approval may still be a long, arduous one.

But Dr. Wolfson, who has watched the enthusiasm for researching psychedelic drugs rise and fall over the decades, says he’s never seen the surge of interest like he is seeing now. “Interest is peaking,” said Dr. Wolfson, but “it hasn’t peaked yet.”

— By Douglas Quenqua, special to

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