You have probably heard of LSD, the short name for lysergic acid diethylamide. Sometimes we call it “acid,” and most of us associate it with recreational usage, the idea of taking a “trip”, and possibly The Beatles.

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New research, however, is suggesting that LSD could have beneficial medicinal effects for some people battling mental illness. This is all connected to how LSD affects the human brain.

This is Your Brain on LSD

LSD reduces communication between some parts of your brain, and increases communication between other parts- in short, it produces a limited rewiring of the way your brain works.

The way that LSD does this has to do with a brain receptor called serotonin 2A. LSD stimulates the serotonin 2A receptor, one of 14 receptors that you have in your brain. When your serotonin 2A receptor is stimulated, you can have a bigger, exaggerated reaction to external stimuli.

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The example that scientists used in a study in Zurich, Switzerland, had to do with classical music. For the patients in the test study, according to Professor Katrin Preller, “pieces of music previously classified as meaningless suddenly became personally meaningful under the influence of LSD.”

LSD can change your perceptions of the world around you and can make things more meaningful. This is why so many people who take LSD have hallucinations, or “trips,” and why some can be good and some can be bad.

What This Means IRL

What LSD is actually doing is pushing your brain closer to a psychotic state. The stimulation of the 2A receptor, combined with the dampening of other receptors can lead to “ego-dissolution,” in the words of researchers at the Imperial College in London. This is the ability to step outside of yourself in order to see yourself as a separate person, removing yourself from the pain or panic you may feel.

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LSD produces a “psychedelic state” that increases openness to experiences and thoughts.  This means that people, after treatment, can find that they are more open, optimistic and hungry for change, knowledge and experiences, all positive things. “In the acute psychedelic state” Dr. Carhart-Harris notes, “people can have genuine insights.”

It’s important to remember though that it’s exactly this type of dissolution that makes for both good, and bad trips. Too much pushing away from identity and self can lead people down a negative path.

Potential Medicinal Use

So how does this information inform doctors who want to help patients? Well, many think that LSD has great potential to help a variety of brain disorders, including schizophrenia, depression, and addiction. Some studies are already underway to see if very small doses- called “microdoses” can help. The results are encouraging.

Since LSD changes patients’ perceptions, it can help them to “see” problems and solutions in new and useful ways. One patient on LSD said that she could suddenly “see” her fear and depression as “a black mass under her ribs.” Her ability to perceive the depression as a foreign body helped her visualize how to expel it from her body: “I screamed at it to get out. And it was gone.”

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This is a good example of how LSD can both mimic, but also help to fight mental illness. Arguably, the hallucination was similar to schizophrenia. In this case, however, in a very controlled setting, the “trip” actually helped a patient deal with her depression.

Scientists in London have called this phenomenon “cognitive looseness,” alluding to the idea that the mental flexibility provided by LSD can actually help patients adapt to their own problems creatively. This is also key to understanding why the microdosing is so important. If your mind is too flexible, you run the risk of psychosis. Just a tiny bit may be what the doctor ordered.

What Next?

The research is new and just beginning, but scientists think that psychedelic drugs such as LSD, or even “magic mushrooms” might have real potential to help people.

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This does not mean, of course, that if you are depressed, you should run right out and get some. The best results have come in very controlled studies, and in very small doses. Still, this is a good reason to feel optimistic about future treatments, and about the concept of LSD as a potential therapeutic modality.