The Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann created LSD for the first time in 1938 by accident. Ever since his unexpectedly trippy cycle ride from his laboratory five years later, this psychedelic drug has been revered for its ability to promote a feeling of "oneness" with the world.
Swiss scientists have now used MRI brain scans to show the neurochemical mechanisms that underpin this curious experience. The team of researchers at the University Hospital of Psychiatry Zurich believe that this discovery could open the doors for new therapies to help people with psychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia and depression, deal with difficulties in interpersonal relationships.
"LSD blurs the boundaries between one's own self and others during social interactions," project leader Katrin Preller explained in a statement.
Ego death, a term first used by psychologists and counterculture icon Timothy Leary, describes the experience of temporarily losing your self-identity. Part of the appeal of this experience is gaining a closer sense of “oneness” and unity with other people, human experience, and nature. Previously, this phenomenon has been shrouded in anecdotal evidence and the odd bit of hippy-dippy pseudoscience, but scientists are now starting to understanding the physical mechanism behind it.
The study, published this week in The Journal of Neuroscience, gathered 24 healthy humans and dosed one portion of them with 100 micrograms of LSD and the other portion with a placebo. Once the drug started to kick in, the participants were placed in an MRI scanner and asked to communicate with a virtual avatar through eye movements.
"This allowed us to show that brain regions which are important for distinguishing between self and others were less active under the influence of LSD," added Preller.
Most notably, the researchers found the people tripping on LSD were experiencing specific changes to the serotonin 2A receptor (5-HT2A receptor), a receptor in the human brain that has been shown to play a central role in a person’s sense of self. In turn, this affected brain regions associated with the self, namely areas important for self-processing and social cognition. This change in brain activity, it appears, blurred the boundaries between the self and others, forging a feeling of "oneness".
For some people with severe depression or schizophrenia, the sense of self can become distorted, leading to problems with social abilities and relationships. Now that scientists understand more about the intertwined connection of the self and social cognition, they hope they can work on treatments that could help people address their problems with self-experience and social interaction.