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August 21, 2017 | by  | in Super Science Trends |
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Super Science Trends: Lucy in the Science Lab with Double-Blind Trials

First synthesised in 1938, LSD has had an interesting experimental history, depending on your definition of “experiment”. While the ’70s counterculture took it to expand their minds, the CIA was using it to control them, exploiting LSD’s believed capacity to put people in a highly suggestible state to start an arms race of psychological warfare. Their infamous experiments, dubbed MK-ULTRA, were rarely ever ethical, due to subjects being given unsafe quantities of the drug and not being informed that they had ingested it, leading to serious injury, exacerbation of schizophrenia, and death. More scientifically sound experiments on the effects of LSD continued up to the 1980s, until research funding began to dry up due to governments fearing that they would encourage drug use by the public.

In 2014, the first clinical double-blind trial of LSD in decades was conducted to investigate its use as a therapeutic tool for treating anxiety and depression resulting from terminal illness. The “double-blind” part is important, as neither group of subjects knew if they were getting a drug or a placebo — a bastion of good scientific method. While a positive trend in the reduction of anxiety was observed, the researchers noted in the discussion that blinding has historically been hard to achieve with psychedelics, as a subject or the administrator of the drug is bound to notice the drug’s influence.

In 2016, another double-blind placebo-controlled study conducted at the Imperial College of London was the first to take extensive brain scans of patients under the influence of LSD, showing with more detail what occurs in the brain during a trip. The main takeaway was that under the influence of the drug, the networks in the brain responsible for visual and sensory processing start to desegregate, leading to a more “integrated” brain. This intermingling of senses, coupled with increased blood flow to the brain, leads to the visual hallucinations, ego dissolution, and synaesthesia characteristic of a trip. If you view your brain like a house, LSD makes the walls of that house intangible. You’re still under one roof, so to speak, but now the hallways you normally take become a bit arbitrary and you can step through the walls to each room more freely (there’s a “Doors of Perception” joke in here somewhere…).

Studies like these begin to paint a thorough picture of LSD’s therapeutic potential, but a lack of funding means researchers are walking where they could run. The 2014 trial had to be funded through non-governmental bodies like the Swiss Medical Society for Psycholytic Therapy, and the Imperial College study was crowdfunded by Kickstarter-but-for-science website Walacea.

Independent psychedelic researcher Jim Fadiman has worked around this lack of funding in his 2011 study of “microdosing” where participants undergo a regiment of ingesting one tenth of a normal dose of LSD every four days and record if it improved their mood and productivity over time. Rather than conducting it in lab conditions, Fadiman crowdsourced his research, sending out information packets and questionnaires online to volunteers all over the world (who were expected to procure their own LSD). Around 400 people have responded, with a majority noting a decrease in depression and an increase in feelings of alertness and determination. However, Fadiman’s research is almost completely anecdotal, and it couldn’t be guaranteed that everyone’s microdosing experience was honest or kept to the schedule.

There’s a huge disparity between what is known about LSD experientially and what is known clinically. Double-blind studies, while a bastion of good scientific procedure, are kneecapped by lack of funding. Crowdfunding or sourcing are novel and readily available options, but requires the crowd to have the drug on hand. Appropriately, it all comes down to who is willing to pick up the tab.

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