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The Science Behind Your Trip

Updated: Aug 22, 2018

By Emma Russo

For the first time in history brain imaging of patients under the influence of the recreational and highly hallucinogenic drug, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), have been taken. LSD, also known as acid, is a synthetic psychedelic drug known for its powerful ability to alter mood and perception at relatively low doses. Although restrictions are placed on LSD worldwide, scientists are uncovering how LSD works in the human brain with legal laboratory research.

In research by Carhart-Harris & Nutt (2016), participants in the study were injected with 75mcg of LSD, as opposed to a conventional 100mcg dosage. Participants were studied for eight hours, the typical duration of an LSD trip, through a series of brain imaging techniques. While under the influence of LSD it was found that regions of the brain were communicating in uncharacteristic ways, particularly in the visual cortex.

Figure 1 In pink is V1, which shows increased activity at rest when LSD is ingested.

This could help explain the vivid and intricate hallucinations trippers experience while on LSD. Volunteers for this experiment encountered images by way of information drawn from many different parts of their brains and not just from the visual cortex which is normally responsible for processing visual data. “We saw many more areas of the brain than normal were contributing to visual processing under LSD, even though the volunteer’s eyes were closed,” said David Nutt, one of the researchers. Overall, the researchers established LSD altered communication networks in the brain commonly involved in attention, movement, vision, and hearing.

However, not all parts of the brain encountered this integrating effect. Important brain networks, like the neuronal networks active when the brain is at rest, experienced reduced blood flow and loss of connection. This is believed to be the reason behind why trippers often feel less of a singular entity and more connected with both the people and world around them while on LSD.

In practical application, the team behind this research believes LSD can be used to treat certain mental disorders. The areas of the brain that saw less blood flow and connection under the influence of LSD have been implicated as factors in depression and addictive behavior, suggesting future research could explore therapeutic LSD to treat such illnesses. Despite the potential applications, it will most likely be a while before medical psychedelics enter the market due to heavy restrictions and the stigma surrounding them.


Carhart-Harris, R. L., Muthukumaraswamy, S., Roseman, L., Kaelen, M., Droog, W.,

Murphy, K., ... & Leech, R. (2016). Neural correlates of the LSD experience revealed

by multimodal neuroimaging. Proceedings of the National Academy of

Sciences, 113(17), 4853-4858.

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