By Marina Artemiou
“This Is Your Brain on Drugs” was a large-scale US anti-narcotics campaign by Partnership for a Drug-Free America (PDFA) launched in 1987. Ever since, it has been widely remembered for featuring one specific, indelible image: an egg, sizzling in a frying pan, representing “your brain on drugs”. Despite the criticism, ridicule, and satire this campaign faced in the years following its release to the public, three decades later, the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids (the group formerly known as the PDFA) brought the frying pan out of retirement and fired up the stove to present the US nation with a very familiar campaign once again (The New York Times, 2016). In spite of the prominence of the war on drugs in multiple countries worldwide and the steep penalties which drug offences carry, the recreational as well as medicinal use of drugs has drastically increased while in countries such as the Netherlands the controlled use of psychedelics and marijuana have been completely legalised.
Recreational drug use refers to the use of a psychoactive drug to induce an altered state of consciousness, by modifying perception, feelings, and the emotions of the user (DrugWise, 2017). Simply putting it, it refers to using psychotropic drugs with the sole purpose of acquiring a “trip”. There is a myriad of reasons for why people tend to use drugs recreationally; some of these include enjoyment, natural rebellion, self-medicating, etc. Nevertheless, almost all drug use begins with a healthy dose of curiosity as humans are naturally curious beings and want to experiment with different experiences and states of consciousness. As a result, most people tend to try psychedelics and other hallucinogenic drugs when experimenting for the first time (DrugWise, 2017).
Psychedelics are a subset of hallucinogenic drugs whose primary effect is to trigger extraordinary states of consciousness (Mind, 2016). This means that they possess the ability to alter perception, mood, and numerous other cognitive processes which results in the user experiencing a powerful trip and disconnecting from reality. Contrary to popular belief, psychedelics are generally considered physiologically safe and more often than not, do not lead to dependence or addiction (Mind, 2016). As a result, it comes as a surprise that most psychedelic drugs are illegal worldwide under UN conventions, and such legal barriers have made it increasingly difficult to study their effects on the human brain.
In 2016 and for the first time in history, the Beckley/Imperial Research programme revealed the effects of LSD on the human brain by utilising cutting-edge brain imaging technology. Their findings showed how the drug decreased communication between the regions of the brain which make up the Default Mode Network (DMN) and resulted in DMN disintegration (Beckley Foundation, 2017). The DMN refers to a large-scale brain network which is primarily composed of the medial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex and angular gyrus (Beckley Foundation, 2017). These regions work collectively to regulate and adjust the amount of sensory information that enters our sphere of awareness when our brains are at a state of wakeful resting, i.e. during daydreaming and mind-wandering. They revealed that DMN disintegration under the influence of LSD, allowed the increase in communication between brain networks which are normally isolated. This produced a more intricate pattern of connections throughout brain structures within the entire brain, which was thought to be directly associated with more fluid modes of cognition (Beckley Foundation, 2017).
Additionally, using fMRI and magnetoencephalography to scan regions of the brain upon LSD administration, it was discovered that the visual cortex, whose main function is to receive, and process information obtained from the eyes, began to communicate with a range of other brain areas. Interestingly, this communication occurred between the visual cortex and regions which are normally not involved in visual processing. These observations provided a possible explanation as to why people tend to experience dreamlike visual hallucinations when administering psychedelics like LSD (Beckley Foundation, 2017).
Similarly to LSD, the widely popular psilocybin mushrooms, commonly known as magic mushrooms or shrooms also induce visual and auditory hallucinations followed by emotional changes and altered perception of time and space (Science Alert, 2016). This is because the psychoactive ingredient, psilocybin affects the brain’s prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that regulates abstract thinking and plays a key role in mood and perception, resulting in the over-connection between the prefrontal cortex and other brain regions such as the visual cortex. Additionally, in a 2012 study, neuroscientist David Nutt noted that while psilocybin caused over-connections between specific brain regions, other areas became muted – including in a region of the brain thought to play a role in maintaining our sense of self (Science Alert, 2016). Collectively, the change in neuronal firing and rearrangement of neuronal connections in the central nervous system provided an explanation as to why specific experiences are observed while under the influence of psychedelics but also exposed potential pharmaceutical interventions to treat symptoms of depression and other mental illnesses where the sufferer experiences significant decreases in CNS neuronal firing.
Despite the potential therapeutic benefit of psychedelics and the need to conduct more human studies to completely understand their mode of action and investigate any long-term side-effects which may arise, the combined fact that the manufacturing, purchasing and use of psychedelics as well as the unwillingness of people to administer these drugs for clinical studies has put a halt in this field of research. Perhaps in the near future the potential of this class of drugs can be unlocked but so far all the misconceptions as well as anti-drug campaigns which paint a negative image for all recreational drugs, are discouraging the public from wanting to learn more about psychedelics.
The New York Times. (2016) “This Is Your Brain on Drugs”, Tweaked for Todays Parents. Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/08/business/media/this-is-your-brain-on-drugs-tweaked-for-todays-parents.html [Accessed 5th February 2021]
DrugWise. (2017) Why do young people take drugs? Available from: https://www.drugwise.org.uk/why-do-young-people-take-drugs/ [Accessed 5th February 2021]
Mind. (2016) Recreational Drugs and Alcohol. Available from: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/drugs-recreational-drugs-alcohol/about-recreational-drugs/ [Accessed 5th February 2021]
Beckley Foundation. (2017) The World’s First Images Of The Brain on LSD. Available from: https://www.beckleyfoundation.org/the-brain-on-lsd-revealed-first-scans-show-how-the-drug-affects-the-brain/ [Accessed 5th February 2021]
Science Alert. (2016) Here’s What Magic Mushrooms Do to Your Body And Brain. Available from: https://www.sciencealert.com/here-s-what-magic-mushrooms-does-to-your-body-and-brain [Accessed 5th February 2021]