When Albert Hofmann experienced the world’s first acid trip in 1943, he proclaimed: “LSD could be for psychiatry what the microscope was for biology and the telescope for astronomy.” Hoffman’s words proved prophetic — ten years later, biologists showed that serotonin plays a role in the brain. LSD inserts itself into the brain’s receptors for serotonin, which is today one of the world’s most studied neurotransmitters. By noticing the structural similarity between LSD and serotonin, and knowing that acid bends the mind, biologists were inspired to prove serotonin’s role in the brain in 1953.
This pattern of discovery — describing the structure of a drug, finding the receptor it invades, and locating our native neurotransmitter — has occurred numerous times because chemists were puzzled by the fact that a chemical produced by a plant or in a lab can affect the human body. Like them or loathe them, we need illegal drugs if we are to achieve one of science’s ultimate goals: understanding the human brain.
We have smoking to thank for the first discovery of a receptor. Nicotine was isolated in 1843. In the 70s the receptor — which normally binds to acetylcholine — was discovered. It was respectfully named “the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor”. The pattern repeats: morphine was discovered in 1805; our native endorphins in 1975.
Today, after three decades of campaigning, researchers are again studying drugs and the brain. Now, combining narcotics with EEG studies to measure electrical activity and fMRI scanners to track blood flow, they are able to unravel the mechanics of the mind in ways the sober brain could never reveal.
In 2012, Robin Carhart-Harris of Imperial College in London conducted the world’s first neurological study of psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms). This showed that psilocybin doesn’t increase blood flow in the brain. It reduces it. This, he says, indicates that everyday heightened activity in those parts is key to minimising our sensory intake. If we could see, hear and feel everything around us all the time, we’d be incapable of functioning.
David Nutt, director of the Neuropsychopharmacology Unit, also at Imperial College, is studying the effects of MDMA. You may know him as the man sacked by the British government for arguing that ecstasy is, from a statistical level, less dangerous than horse riding. His landmark 2012 study revealed that MDMA causes a decrease in the synchronous firing of the prefrontal cortex and the posterior cingulate cortex. In clinical depression, these two locations are tightly linked.
Researchers worldwide are obtaining permits to study narcotics legitimately. But arguing for the importance of understanding how acid twirls the mind is not as easy as making the case for the genetics of cancer. According to Carhart-Harris, academic conservatism just adds to the red tape that ultimately holds up scientific progress.
Drugs are dangerous, but they are double-edged swords, and when used in the right time in the right way, scientists can use them as unparalleled tools to probe the mechanics of the mind.