The Beckley / Imperial Research Programme aims to develop a comprehensive account of how substances such as LSD, psilocybin, DMT and MDMA affect the brain to alter consciousness, and how they produce their potentially therapeutic effects. We use the latest developments in brain imaging technology and analysis methods to measure brain blood flow, brain network connectivity, and neural oscillations (rhythmical activity, or ‘brain waves’) during the psychedelic experience. This understanding greatly adds to the evidence base supporting the therapeutic potential of these substances, while teaching us about consciousness itself. Our studies have resulted in over 20 publications in high-impact scientific journals, and have led to the recent completion of a breakthrough clinical trial, funded by the Medical Research Council, to investigate psilocybin in the treatment of depression.
LSD, compared to placebo, increases the connectivity of the visual areas
Our feasibility study, published in the spring of 2016, was the first to test whether psilocybin could help people with treatment-resistant depression. We showed that after only two psilocybin sessions, 67% of patients were in remission with 42% after 3 months remaining depression-free with significant reductions in their anxiety and an improved capacity to feel pleasure.
Such results from two doses of a drug are unheard of, and provide a strong indication that there is something special about the way psilocybin acts in the brain and changes conscious experience that points towards its potential impact on the care of these patients.
Since our first published report, more investigation has been carried out to improve our understanding of the mechanisms of action of psilocybin for the treatment of depression. Highlights of our research on psilocybin for the treatment of depression can be seen here.
These studies provide preliminary support for the safety and efficacy of psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression and motivates further trials, with more rigorous designs, to better examine the therapeutic potential of this approach.
The design of this trial is a double blind randomized controlled trial in major depressive disorder. We will use fMRI to compare the treatment mechanisms of six weeks of daily escitalopram with one single dose of psilocybin. The trial will start in 2018.
This ongoing study is using state of the art brain imaging to investigate the actions of DMT, the main psychoactive compound in ayahuasca brew. The study will follow our previous brain imaging protocols to allow comparison with psilocybin, LSD, and MDMA. This development will greatly enhance our understanding of not just the actions of this psychedelic and its relation to others, but also its potential for therapeutic benefit.
Effects of psychedelics on brain cells and blood vessel activity
The psychoactive effects of psychedelics are thought to be mediated by activation of serotonin 2A (5-HT2A) receptors within the cerebral cortex. However, a deeper understanding of how brain cells are affected by psychedelics has been hampered by the unavailability of high temporal and spatial resolution recording techniques that are able to dissect cell-type specific cortical activity in the systemic dynamics of a waking organism, while at the same time differentiating neuronal from blood-flow related signals.
This ongoing study is using advanced techniques of voltage imaging and combine them with selective neuropharmacological challenges and 5-HT2A specific ethological observations. The aim is to reveal within the brain of waking mice how neuronal and haemodynamic signals orchestrate as psychedelics such as LSD or DMT are applied.
David Nutt, together with Amanda Feilding, is Co-Director of the Programme. David Nutt is currently the Edmond J. Safra Professor of Neuropsychopharmacology and director of the Neuropsychopharmacology Unit in the Division of Brain Sciences at Imperial College London.
Robin Carhart-Harris is the lead investigator of the Beckley / Imperial Research Programme. He has a degree in Psychology, MA in Psychoanalysis, and PhD in the field of Psychopharmacology, and is currently a Research Associate in the Neuropsychopharmacology Unit in the Division of Brain Sciences at Imperial College London.
Mendel Kaelen was a Beckley / Imperial Research Programme Fellow, and a PhD student in the Neuropsychopharmacology Unit in the Division of Brain Sciences at Imperial College London and also a musician. His dissertation project investigates the interaction between LSD and music.
This collaboration was formed in 2005, when Amanda convinced David Nutt – then at the University of Bristol – that they should form a collaborative partnership. She also suggested that Robin Carhart-Harris carry out his PhD under Nutt’s supervision. In 2009, David Nutt moved to Imperial College London, and their collaboration became the Beckley / Imperial Research Programme, with Amanda and David as co-directors and Robin as lead investigator. In 2012, the first results of their brain imaging study with psilocybin were published in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) and achieved world-wide publicity. Based on this work, the Programme later received a substantial grant from the Medical Research Council to study the effects of psilocybin in the treatment of depression.
Also in 2012, the Beckley / Imperial Research Programme carried out the first brain imaging study of MDMA (‘Ecstasy’), as part of the Channel 4 programme Drugs Live: The Ecstasy Trial. This was the first detailed study to map the neural underpinnings of MDMA’s effects, and to explain why it is so valuable for psychotherapy.
In 2014, the Programme, at last, launched the first-ever brain imaging study with LSD – a study Amanda has longed to do ever since the 1960s. The results have proven to be as ground-breaking as those of the psilocybin studies. To supplement the funding to complete the study, the Beckley Foundation launched a successful crowdfunding campaign with the website Walacea.
Future Beckley / Imperial studies will investigate the relationship between LSD and creativity, using the ancient Chinese game ‘Go’. Studies comparing the effects of DMT (the main psychoactive ingredient of ayahuasca) to those of psilocybin and LSD are also being planned in order to examine their similarities and differences, and to further understand phenomena of altered consciousness such as ‘seeing with eyes shut’ and the experience of ‘entities.’
Media coverage of the Beckley/Imperial research on LSD
Media coverage of the Beckley/Imperial research on MDMA: Imperial college press release, the Guardian, BBC news, and watch researchers Dr Robin Carhart-Harris and Dr David Erritzoe discussing this study
2017, Scientific Reports
Psychopharmacology , 2017
Scientific Reports, 2017
Language, Cognition and Neuroscience, 2016
Lancet Psychiatry, 2016
Psychological Medicine, 2016
Human Brain Mapping, 2016
Journal of Psychopharmacology, 2016
Human Brain Mapping, 2016
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, 2016
Current Biology, 2016
European Neuropsychopharmacology, 2016
Biological Psychiatry, 2014
Human Brain Mapping, 2015
Human brain mapping, 2014
Frontiers in human neuroscience, 2014
International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology, 2014
Current Drug Abuse Reviews, 2014
Journal of The Royal Society Interface, 2014
Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 2014
Schizophrenia bulletin, 2013
The Journal of Neuroscience, 2013
The British Journal of Psychiatry, 2012
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, 2012
Journal of Psychopharmacology, 2010
Psilocybin for Depression
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