LSD, Neuroplasticity, and a New Approach to Therapy

For many years, fear tactics were some of the more effective tactics of the war on drugs and anti-drug propaganda. Stories of negative reactions among users were a means of keeping those interested from experimenting with substances like Cannabis, Psilocybin, and LSD. In fact, the horror stories of the bad LSD trip are so common it has become a form of urban legend in their own right. I remember my father telling me stories of kids he grew up with who took one bad hit and were “never the same.” So, what is the reality surrounding LSD, its possible negative outcomes, and more? The truth is much stranger than most would believe. What’s more, it points to a future in which LSD treats both psychiatric mental health problems and physical issues as well. Today, we’ll be exploring the world of LSD within psychedelic enabled therapy and neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity: How our Brains Learn and Develop

Neuroplasticity relates to the brain’s ability to form, organize, and create connections between synapses, particularly concerning things such as learning, real-world experience, or recovering from an illness or injury. It is also a term describing the brain’s overall ability to adapt to changes in the individual’s environment, their ability to master skills, create memories, store information, and recover from injury.

There are specific mental health disorders that can disrupt the function of neuroplasticity in the brain.

Trauma can result in anxiety, depression, or PTSD — These things can significantly limit one’s life, leading them to experience fewer things, prevent them from learning, or otherwise disrupt their life.
These things also impact the brain’s ability to learn might be impaired, which disrupts the neuroplasticity process and limits the number of synapses created.

So, how does this relate to the use of LSD?

In recent years, there has been some research suggesting LSD might not only be beneficial for the treatment of various mental health disorders but could also be a functional tool in both therapy applications and in the attempt to promote neuro-regeneration and neuroplasticity.

While still limited, the results prove to be very promising so far.

In one study published by ACS Pharmacology & Translational Science entitled, ‘Low Doses of LSD Acutely Increase BDNF Blood Plasma Levels in Healthy Volunteers,’ doctors gave low-doses of LSD in a range of 5 to 20 micrograms to subjects.

The scientists then collected blood samples every two hours over six hours, analyzing them using ELISA or enzyme-linked immunoassay (a form of lab testing to detect antibodies in the blood).
ELISA testing revealed that shortly after dosing of LSD, BDNF blood plasma increased in the brain (BDNF is a gene used to provide instructions for protein creation in the brain and spinal cord called the brain-derived neurotrophic factor).

This process promotes the survival of nerve cells by growing, maturing, and maintaining these cells. These elevated BDNF could mean LSD could provide the means of escalating the production of BDNF, ultimately escalating the maintenance of neurons and neuroplasticity of the brain. The hypothesis suggests that repeated use of LSD could stabilize or promote BDNF levels in those with mental health disorders, helping them mediate their symptoms and function in day-to-day life. However, is there direct evidence that shows us LSD actively promotes neuroplasticity? At the time of writing, we cannot say for sure. But we may know soon.

Further evidence

A new study sponsored by the University of Fribourg by Dr. Gregor Hasler is investigating the effects of LSD on the neural plasticity of healthy individuals, referred to in his paper as LSD-Plasticity. The study is currently in its first phase, aiming to investigate how LSD changes the pathological processes of the brain and how this dysregulation of these processes may affect mental disorders such as depression and anxiety or even assist in the recovery from strokes or traumatic brain injuries. Previous research suggests that long-term effects of LSD may include increased neuroplasticity, reduced anxiety, and relief from mental health symptoms. The study’s goal is to investigate LSD’s overall neuroplastic effects, whether it enhances plasticity, how long these effects last, how they occur in the brain, and the overall clinical potential and use of LSD in a clinical setting.

The study includes 40 participants in a double-blind, placebo and controlled study which will experiment with both low and high doses of LSD within a dosage range of 5 to 100 micrograms. The current expected date of completion is February 1st, 2024.

So while we do not yet know if psychedelics will be the future of therapy and the treatment of trauma and mental health disorders, it’s clear the groundwork is being laid by a new generation of scientists and health practitioners who see the value in these psychoactive substances.