A team of researchers from the Baylor College of Medicine have found that Lysergic acid diethylamide, more commonly known as LSD, causes changes in the brain that may offer insight into how the brain actually directs behavior.
According to the press release announcing the results, tests performed at the Baylor lab showed that LSD triggers changes in key areas of the brain, which they believe “may explain the profound altered behavior associated with LSD, helping to understand how the brain generates behavior.”
“Our lab is interested in improving the understanding of how the brain generates behavior,” said Dr. Daoyun Ji, professor of neuroscience at Baylor, in the release. “This would give us a measure of what was going on in the brain.”
Background: LSD Is Helping Us Understand How Our Brains Work
To put their theory to the test, Ji and his team used lab rats fitted with sensors that allowed researchers the ability to measure brain activity. They then placed the rats, both with and without LSD, in a familiar C-shaped track, and measured how fast the rodents ran as well as how many laps they completed.
Throughout the experiment, the team also observed the animals’ behavior and associated brain activity in real-time, looking for electrical spiking patterns in two critical areas in human brains: the hippocampus, which is critical in both learning and memory, and the visual cortex.
“LSD triggers abnormal perceptions of the real world and altered behaviors,” said Ji. “By studying how the drug works, we hope to gain insights into the neural mechanisms that mediate behavior.”
Analysis: Just a Stoned Rat in a Maze
When the tests were completed, Ji and the Baylor team found several key results that they believe may offer hints into the roots of all behavior.
First, they observed that when on LSD, the mice ran fewer laps, moved slower than their sober colleagues, and also stopped more frequently to “zone out” and “stare off into space in a dreamlike fashion.” This behavior also corresponded with a significant reduction in the spiking activity in the two observed brain regions.
“That [reduced spiking] means that when the animal was moving around in the track, the neurons generated fewer pulses, which probably affected the clarity of their guiding brain ‘map,’” said Ji.
Whenever an animal is navigating, its brain develops an internal ‘map’ of the environment. This map, the release notes, “allows the animal to remember the place, and guides future navigation in the same space.”
Published in the journal Cell Reports, the research paper explains that the visual cortex and the hippocampus are the two primary areas of the brain that must work in concert to create this map, with the former seeing and processing the world around us before sending that processed information to the latter for future reference.
In the conclusion of the Baylor mouse studies, Ji and his team propose that the LSD interfered with the spiking patterns that sustain this internal map, causing many of the key behaviors observed.
“We propose that LSD makes the map fuzzy,” said Ji.
Outlook: Do Rats Dream About Giant Pieces of Cheese?
One unexpected aspect of the test results were the long pauses exhibited by the LSD treated mice, but along with the effects of the reduced spiking on the brain’s internal map, it is also this particular result that Ji and his team believe may hold the key to a whole range of animal and human behaviors.
“These periods of inactivity triggered by LSD are like the normal transition from being awake to going to sleep,” said Ji. “It suggests that maybe the drug induces a state similar to a half-conscious state in which a lot of dreaming-like activity is happening.”
However, Ji notes, “more research is needed to enlighten this finding.”
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