LSD and the mystical experience
A Beckley / UCL & King's College London Collaboration
First ever personalised imaging of the brain under LSD
A study developed by Amanda Feilding in collaboration with neuroimaging experts from UCL and King’s College London
Why support this research?
What is happening inside the brain of someone undergoing a profound and life-changing mystical experience? This project will leverage recent developments in precision neuroimaging to produce the first ever personalised brain images of individuals undergoing an LSD-induced mystical experience. A better understanding of the subtle changes of brain states coinciding with the deep existential and transformational insights induced by LSD will significantly inform the neurobiology of consciousness and will improve our understanding of how this compound may be used as a tool for both personal development and therapy.
BackgroundIt has long been Amanda’s goal to better understand the neurophysiology underlying consciousness and its expanded states, so that we might more easily integrate their advantages into our individual lives, and into the web of society. We are developing, in collaboration with neuroimaging experts, a ground-breaking study which will considerably advance our understanding of the way psychedelics can bring about such profound shifts in consciousness, which are a core feature of their healing and transformative potential. As previous Beckley/Imperial neuroimaging studies have shown, changes in brain connectivity are key to bringing about the most striking, mind altering elements of the psychedelic experience (e.g., ego-dissolution, oceanic boundlessness and the mystical experience), but it is not clear what are the major centres affected, and how they relate to various qualitative aspects of the mystical experience and other anomalous experiences. Participants who responded best to the first clinical study of psilocybin-assisted therapy for treatment-resistant depression were those who had more intense mystical-like experiences during their session.
Study ObjectivesWe will employ, for the first time in psychedelic research, a new approach to collecting brain images, called precision fMRI, which, by prolonging the data acquisition time from each individual, will allow us to produce a reliable, individualised functional architecture of a participants’ brain networks during such an experience (i.e., the way different brain networks are functionally connected), with an unprecedented level of precision. We will be further studying individual brain centres and their functional connectivity in order to build a better understanding of this core experience of human consciousness, which is associated with transformative experiences through creating a state of hyperplasticity. LSD, a compound that has been successfully used for the treatment of anxiety, depression, psychosomatic diseases, and addiction, evokes profound changes in consciousness and is often associated with deeply meaningful experiences that prompt lasting changes in perspective. These experiences are highly personal, varying significantly between users, so it is of particular interest here to adopt a ‘precision medicine’ approach, in which the intertwining influences within subjects are thoroughly characterised (in contrast to group-level analyses, which do not afford the same level of nuance). This research will also lay the basis for further exploration into other anomalous experiences.
MethodsThe first ever psychedelic neuroimaging study using the latest high-resolution MRI By combining this approach with the use of the highest resolution MRI scanner (7 Tesla, instead of the commonly used 3 Tesla), for the first time in psychedelic research, we will be able to measure, with unmatched precision, the involvement of small brain structures that may play a key role in the psychedelic experience. Fine-grain assessment of the psychedelic experience On the day following the dosing session, in-depth participant interviews will be conducted, in order to collect a detailed account of their experience at a much finer level than previously obtained using questionnaires. This will allow us to carefully map the content of the experience onto fluctuations in brain activity, for unique evaluation of the neural correlates of the mystical experience. Participants People recruited for this study will be experienced psychonauts, ideally with an established contemplative practice. Indeed, meditation practice has been related to less anxiogenic and more ‘mystical’ psychedelic experiences.
CollaboratorsThis project, developed by Amanda Feilding, is a collaboration between the Beckley Foundation and two major universities in the UK, UCL and King’s College London. UCL is consistently ranked as one of the top ten universities in the world (it has been ranked 8th in the 2023 QS World University Rankings) and is ranked 2nd in the UK for research power. King’s College London is also one of the top universities in the UK (ranked 5th in the UK). The team has gathered together researchers with the highest level of expertise in neuroimaging and psychedelic science, with experts such as Prof. Karl Friston, the world’s most cited neuroscientist and one of the most influential scientists of the 21st century, as our senior advisor and supporting PI; Prof. Rob Leech, the analytical mind behind most of Beckley/Imperial’s revolutionary neuroimaging studies, as our study PI; and Dr Federico Turkheimer as a senior advisor. Amanda Feilding Since 1966, Amanda has been studying the underlying mechanisms of the effect of psychedelics on consciousness, with a particular interest in the change of capillary volume in the brain brought about by a variety of different techniques, with the hypothesis that this increase in capillary volume provides the brain with an increased supply of energy, which in turn activates more brain cells simultaneously, thus increasing connectivity and expanding consciousness. Amanda set up the Beckley Foundation to carry out scientific research using the latest brain imaging technologies and other techniques, and to reform global drug policy in order to facilitate research and access. Prof Robert Leech Robert Leech is a professor in the Department of Neuroimaging at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, King’s College London. A rising star in his field, his research has focused on developing and applying innovative neuroimaging and behavioural methodologies to better understand the relationship between brain and behaviour. This work is inherently multidisciplinary, integrating neuroscience and psychology with computer science. It involves collaborations with scientists from many disciplines including cognitive psychologists, computer scientists, statisticians, bioengineers, physicists and neuropharmacologists. He played an essential role in the production of the ground-breaking results from the neuroimaging studies with psilocybin, LSD and DMT conducted as part of the Beckley/Imperial Psychedelic Research Programme. Prof Karl Friston Karl John Friston FRS, FMedSci, FRSB, is a British neuroscientist at University College London and the leading authority on brain imaging. He pioneered and developed the single most powerful technique for analysing the results of brain imaging studies and unravelling the patterns of cortical activity and the relationship of different cortical areas to one another. Currently over 90% of papers published in brain imaging use his method (SPM or Statistical Parametric Mapping) and this approach is now finding more diverse applications in, for example, the analysis of EEG and MEG data. His method has revolutionised studies of the human brain and given us profound insights into its operations. No other thinker has had such a major influence as Friston on the development of human brain studies in the past 25 years. Dr Anjali Bhat Dr Anjali Bhat is a postdoctoral fellow at UCL and King’s College and will be co-ordinating the study under Rob Leech’s supervision. Anjali is a neuroscientist whose research interest spans many areas, from theoretical neurobiology to cognitive neuroscience, psychiatric genetics, cell biology and neuroimmunology. By establishing key research collaborations with some of the world’s most prestigious academic institutions, she has propelled the field of psychedelic research forwards for over 20 years, conducting several landmark studies, such as the world’s first LSD brain imaging study, and the first study to show clinical benefits of psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression.