Scans of volunteers who took acid shows it disrupts information pathways in brain
A group of volunteers who took a trip in the name of science have helped researchers uncover how LSD messes with activity in the brain to induce an altered state of consciousness.
Brain scans of individuals high on the drug revealed that the chemical allows parts of the cortex to become flooded with signals that are normally filtered out to prevent information overload.
The drug allowed more information to flow from the thalamus, a kind of neural gatekeeper, to a region called the posterior cingulate cortex, and it stemmed the flow of information to another part known as the temporal cortex.
This disruption in communication may underpin some of the wacky effects reported by LSD users, from feelings of bliss and being at one with the universe to hallucinations and what scientists in the field refer to as “ego dissolution”, where one’s sense of self disintegrates.
For the study, the researchers invited 25 healthy participants into the lab to be scanned under the influence of LSD and, on another occasion, after taking a placebo. They were shown around the scanner beforehand to ensure they felt comfortable going inside when the drug took hold. Had the machine suddenly taken on a threatening demeanour, the scans might not have come out so well.
The scientists wanted to test a hypothesis first put forward more than a decade ago. It states LSD causes the thalamus to stop filtering information it relays to other parts of the brain. It is the breakdown of this filter that gives rise to the weird effects the drug induces, or so the thinking goes.
“The world around us is not the world we perceive because the thalamus filters out what it considers to be irrelevant information,” said Katrin Preller, a researcher on the project at the University Hospital for Psychiatry in Zurich. “We don’t necessarily perceive all there is because that would be an overload of information.”
Scans of the volunteers’ brains suggested there may be some truth to the hypothesis. On LSD, the thalamus let more information through to some parts of the brain and suppressed information bound for others. “What we found is that the model is mostly true, but how information is distributed to the cortex under LSD is much more specific than it predicts,” said Preller.