Tricking the Brain: Studies Show LSD May Be Useful In Treating Anxiety

The psychedelic renaissance continues as more acid research shows promise for the drug.

New research suggests LSD may have more value than simply being a substance people take in order to trip out––or enjoy the otherwise abominable music of The Grateful Dead (sorry). 

Two studies, published in Nature's Translational Psychiatry, showed LSD-dosed participants were less able to recognize fear and anxiety in others, and that LSD decreased reactions to fearful stimuli––a response that has researchers thinking the drug might be useful in psychotherapy, specifically for treating anxiety.

The studies were conducted by researchers from the Division of Clinical Pharmacology and Toxicology, Department of Psychiatry, and Department of Biomedicine and Clinical Research at the University of Basel, in Switzerland, where chemist Albert Hoffman first synthesized the drug in 1943.

In the first study, researchers gave 24 participants 100 μg of LSD––which is comparable to the amount one would take recreationally––before presenting them with images of fearful and neutral faces, in addition to faces expressing the four basic emotions (fear, happiness, sadness, anger). They found that:

“LSD impaired emotion recognition of negative emotions and enhanced emotional empathy, particularly for positive emotional situations, and had subjective and behaviorally tested prosocial effects.”

According to the study’s authors, these findings show “translational relevance to LSD-assisted psychotherapy,” and that controlled doses of the drug “can be expected to reduce the perception of negative emotions.”

This is an important finding because as psychologist and writer Rick Hanson puts it, “the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.” Or in other words, to the human brain, bad is stronger than good.

Negativity bias and its effects are well established. According to Roy F. Baumeister, a professor of social psychology at Florida State University, from a journal article he co-authored in 2001 entitled 'Bad Is Stronger Than Good' (which appeared in The Review of General Psychology): “Research over and over again shows this is a basic and wide-ranging principle of psychology. It’s in human nature, and there are even signs of it in animals.” From the article:

“Bad emotions, bad parents and bad feedback have more impact than good ones. Bad impressions and bad stereotypes are quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones.” 

This is why so many psychologists and mindfulness advocates emphasize trying to amplify positive emotions. As psychologist Mihaly Csikszentimihalyi puts it (via Psychology Today):

"We must constantly strive to escape such 'psychic entropy' by learning to control our consciousness and direct our attention to activities which provide 'flow' activities which give positive feedback and strengthen our sense of purpose and achievement." 

Now it appears that LSD could help too. In the second study evaluating LSD's impact on fear and anxiety, a similar verdict was reached. 

The University of Basel researchers dosed 20 mentally healthy and drug-free participants with either 100 μg of LSD or a placebo, presented them with similar images, and had them undergo functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans. They found:

"LSD decreased amygdala reactivity to fearful stimuli in healthy subjects. . .[Though] It could be argued that the decreased responsiveness of the amygdala under LSD was due to a drug-induced alteration in visual perception, resulting in the inability to differentiate between the presented facial expressions." 

The amygdala is the portion of the brain responsible for processing emotional activity.

Indeed, the results of both studies are indicative of the therapeutic value of the drug, though it will likely still be quite some time before LSD replaces traditional treatments.