26th February, 2018
Amanda Feilding co-founded the Beckley/Imperial Research Programme with Prof David Nutt in 2008. A decade later, the Beckley/Imperial Psychedelic Research Programme continues to develop more pioneering studies, including the first ever scientific investigation into the effects of microdosing LSD.
Amanda was introduced to LSD in 1965, before the compound became prohibited, and quickly realised its immense potential to help heal psychological disorders such as depression and addiction, and to bring about self-transformation through the mystical or ‘peak’ experience, and furthermore, to enhance cognitive functioning.
In 1966, Amanda started working with the Dutch scientist Bart Huges, exploring and developing his new hypotheses on the mechanisms underlying changing states of consciousness induced by various techniques, including meditation, yoga, and the ingestion of certain psychoactive substances. The first hypothesis investigated whether changes in cerebral circulation and capillary volume underlie changing states of consciousness, and the second hypothesis explored the ‘ego’ as a conditioned reflex mechanism which controls the distribution of blood in the brain, and thus what enters consciousness.
Over the following 50 years Amanda dedicated herself to unravelling the physiological mechanisms underlying consciousness and its changing states, so that LSD and other psychedelics – such as psilocybin and DMT – could be better understood, and thereby used, as invaluable tools to overcome psychological and physical disorders, increase well-being, enhance mood, cognitive functioning, and self-realisation.
In order to undertake this new and taboo research, Amanda set up collaborations with leading scientists around the world.
In 2005, she set up a scientific collaboration with Prof David Nutt – then at the University of Bristol – in order to carry out research into cannabis and the psychedelics. She later suggested that Robin Carhart-Harris carry out his PhD under Nutt’s supervision. In 2008, when David Nutt moved to Imperial College London, their collaboration became the Beckley/Imperial Research Programme, with Amanda and David as co-directors, and Robin as principal investigator. Together, they have created some of this century’s most ground-breaking psychedelic research, including the world’s first brain-imaging study of LSD, and the highly successful pilot, clinical trial into the neural mechanisms underlying the profoundly therapeutic effects of psilocybin in treatment-resistant depression.
The Beckley/Imperial Psychedelic Research Programme has continued developing a comprehensive account of how compounds such as LSD, psilocybin, DMT, MDMA and cannabis affect the brain to alter consciousness, and how they produce their unique therapeutic effects. We use the latest developments in the field of neuroscience and brain imaging technology to measure brain blood distribution, brain network connectivity, and neural oscillations (rhythmical activity, or ‘brain waves’) underlying the psychedelic experience, and how these changes correlate with subjective experiences and influence clinical outcomes in emotional and cognitive measures. This new understanding greatly adds to the evidence-base supporting the therapeutic potential of these compounds, while also teaching us about consciousness itself.
Our studies have resulted in over 35 publications, many in high-impact scientific journals. Here is a small selection:
The Beckley/Imperial Psychedelic Research Programme is continuing to develop more pioneering studies, including the first ever scientific investigation into the effects of microdosing LSD. This important study, led by Amanda Feilding, will start the investigation into the scientific basis of some of the self-reported benefits of this growing practice: wellbeing, mood, cognitive functioning, productivity and creativity.
In 2016, we completed the first-ever neuroimaging study with LSD, with results published in PNAS and launched at the Royal Society, London, to global acclaim. LSD was shown to decrease connectivity between key regions of the brain’s Default Mode Network (DMN) that are involved in processing various aspects of selfhood – such as autobiographical memories and self-awareness, thinking about the past, and planning the future. At the same time, a great increase in global functional connectivity was observed, allowing regions that are not normally functionally connected to communicate with each other. This effect correlated strongly with the subjective experience of ‘ego dissolution’ – meaning lowering of boundaries between the self and the external world, feelings of unity with the outside world, yourself and others.
Such changes in brain function are likely to contribute to the emergence of a more complex, less predictable and more flexible state of consciousness, which may induce more free-flowing patterns of cognition, allowing users to break free from rigid modes of thought and behaviour – such as those underlying psychological disorders like depression and addiction. These results have significant implications for the neurobiology of consciousness, as well as for potential applications of LSD as a valuable tool for psychotherapy.
Our feasibility study was the first to test whether psilocybin could help people with treatment-resistant depression – those who had failed to respond to multiple previous therapies.
This pilot study was published in 2016 in The Lancet Psychiatry, with remarkably positive results: 67% of subjects with treatment-resistant depression were in remission one week after taking psilocybin, and 42% remained depression-free three months later. This is an unprecedented achievement, as participants had suffered from depression for an average of 18 years and had failed to respond to any other treatment.
As a direct result, the UK Medical Research Council awarded a substantial grant to the Beckley/Imperial Research Programme for a ground-breaking Phase I pilot study examining psilocybin as an aid to psychotherapy.
Investigating the Effects of LSD Microdosing on Creativity, Mood, and Cognition
Many of the advocates of LSD microdosing – especially those working in artistic and technological fields – are most attracted by its positive impact on creativity and insight. This double-blind controlled study, led by Amanda Feilding, will explore the physiological and psychological effects of repeated microdosing. Two groups of 24 participants will receive either twice-weekly microdoses of LSD or a placebo over a one-month period.
Changes in brain activity will be measured using EEG, and we will use questionnaires and tasks – including playing the ancient game of Go – to assess the effects of microdosing on mood, cognitive flexibility and creativity. This study will generate the first scientifically-sound knowledge of psychedelic microdosing, and will pave the way for future research to explore the diversity of its application.
The First Study to Investigate the Effects of DMT on Brain Function
This study, led by Chris Timmerman, will use EEG and fMRI imaging to investigate brain alterations caused by DMT, the main psychoactive component in ayahuasca – an ethnobotanical medicine which we have previously demonstrated to increase neurogenesis. The study will build on our previous brain imaging studies, and will allow us to compare the effects and underlying mechanisms of DMT with psilocybin and LSD.
Effects of LSD on Neuronal and Vascular Functioning Using Optogenetics
In this pioneering project, Amanda is collaborating with Tobias Buchborn, who leads the study with Prof Thomas Knopfel. This study employs the ground-breaking technique of optogenetic electrophysiology to make neurons within the living brain emit light whenever they are activated. In this way, we can zoom into the key cells of the brain that are targeted by LSD – in particular, cortical pyramidal cells – and illuminate their distinctive responses to the compound. By looking at the effects of LSD on a microscopic scale, we hope to discover the specific effects of LSD on blood vessels and neuronal functioning, and integrate these results with changes observed at the behavioural level.
Amanda Feilding initiated her collaboration with David Nutt in 2005, when he was at the University of Bristol. When he moved to Imperial College London in 2009, they founded and became co-directors of what is now called the Beckley/Imperial Psychedelic Research Programme. Amanda is founder and director of the Beckley Foundation, and Prof. 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 joined the Beckley/Imperial Psychedelic Research Programme in 2009 as Lead Investigator. 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 is a Beckley/Imperial Research Programme Fellow, having been a PhD student in the Neuropsychopharmacology Unit in the Division of Brain Sciences at Imperial College London. In our LSD study, Mendel lead the investigation into the interaction between LSD and music and the implications this has for psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy.
Leor Roseman is finishing his PhD on visual hallucinations produced by psychedelic drugs using neuroimaging. The main aim of his research is to explore the extent to which the visual cortex is involved in the psychedelic state.
Chris Timmerman has a background in cognitive neuroscience and psychology. He is completing his PhD on the effects of psychedelics in consciousness and brain connectivity. He is currently leading a study investigating the effects of DMT in the human brain with EEG and fMRI and relate these measures with the subjective experience.
Eline Haijen did her bachelor degree in psychology from 2012 to 2015 at Maastricht University. She then completed a research master in Cognitive and Clinical neuroscience in 2017, during which she joined the Beckley/Imperial research team for a 9-month internship. She will co-ordinate the Beckley/Imperial microdosing study.
Taylor Lyons began her PhD at Imperial College in 2015. She is working within the Centre for Neuropsychopharmacology and the Laboratory for Neuronal Circuit Dynamics to investigate the effects of psychedelic compounds on the brain by using optogenetic and neuroimaging techniques. As part of the Beckley/Imperial Research Programme, she will soon start a study using functional brain imaging to examine the acute and potential longer-term effects of psilocybin on brain function, anatomy and psychology.
Tobias Buchborn is a postdoctoral fellow working with the Beckley/Imperial Psychedelic Research Programme in the laboratory of Prof Thomas Knöpfel. Using optogenetics he explores the molecular biology of psychedelics and its translation into behavioural changes. He will lead the upcoming project using optogenetic electrophysiology to study the effects of LSD on neural function and brain vasculature.
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The Effects of Acutely Administered 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine on Spontaneous Brain Function in Healthy Volunteers Measured with Arterial Spin Labeling and Blood Oxygen Level-Dependent Resting State Functional Connectivity (2014)
Psilocybin for Depression
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