Beckley / Imperial Psychedelic Science Programme
What is the background to the psychedelic research being carried out at Imperial?
It is part of the Beckley Foundation / Imperial College Psychedelic Science Programme, which was set up in 2009 by Amanda Feilding (Director of the Beckley Foundation) and Professor David Nutt (Head of Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London). Amanda is Co-director of the Programme with Professor David Nutt, the Principal Investigator. Robin Carhart-Harris is the Lead Investigator.There is also a strong team of doctoral students and international Fellows currently working on the Programme. This programme of work, which investigates the brain mechanisms underlying psychoactive substances, such as psychedelics and cannabis, was originally set up in 2005, as a collaborative Programme between Amanda Feilding and Professor David Nutt, then at Bristol University. However, in 2009 when Professor Nutt was awarded the Edmond J Safra Chair in Neuropsychopharmacology he moved to Imperial College London and so did the Programme of research, which was re-named the Beckley Foundation / Imperial College Psychedelic Science Programme.
A research collaboration established between Professor David Nutt and Amanda Feilding, with Dr Robin Carhart-Harris. Their collaboration has been extremely successful. Over the past six years, the Beckley Foundation / Imperial College Psychedelic Science Programme has been responsible for many new insights and publications in high-impact medical journals. The work that has been conducted as part of this programme has been pioneering in many respects, and has produced some remarkable and important findings. Research includes the first functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and magnetoencephalography (MEG) research with psilocybin; the first resting-state fMRI research with 3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine (MDMA); and now the first fMRI and MEG research with lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). In 2012, following on from pilot studies using psilocybin, a grant proposal to the Medical Research Council for a novel study investigating psilocybin as a treatment for depression was awarded. This research is expected to begin in the following months.
Amanda Feilding is founder and director of the Beckley Foundation, which she established in 1998, following a lifelong interest in consciousness research. In 1966, she had become passionate about the investigation of the physiological mechanisms underlying the ego, and the changing states of consciousness brought about by psychoactive substances and other practices such as meditation. She determined to follow through this research in order to learn more about consciousness itself, and how these substances might be used to help treat common illnesses. When setting up the Beckley Foundation she created a Scientific Advisory Board, whose members include Professors Colin Blakemore, Les Iversen, David Nutt and the late Doctors Albert Hofmann and Alexander Shulgin, among others. Since then, David Nutt and other members of the Advisory Board were regular contributors to the Beckley Foundation’s House of Lords series of Seminars entitled Drugs and Society: a Rational Perspective. In 2005, while David Nutt was still at Bristol University, Amanda encouraged him to set up a collaborative research programme with the Beckley Foundation in order to investigate the underlying mechanisms, and potential beneficial uses, of controlled substances such as cannabis and the psychedelics. When, in 2009, David moved to Imperial College London, the Programme became the Beckley Foundation / Imperial College Psychopharmacology Research Programme. Amanda Feilding has always been fully involved in the planning and carrying out of the scientific projects as co-director, collaborator and author.
Since establishing the Foundation in 1998, it has always been Amanda’s intention to open up the doors to scientific research into LSD. Over the years she has developed many collaborative partnerships with leading scientists and institutions around the world, with whom she works on a wide range of pioneering projects investigating the neurophysiology, pharmacology and subjective effects of psychoactive substances such as cannabis, psilocybin, MDMA, LSD and ayahuasca, in order to elucidate how these compounds affect the brain, and to better understand their potential therapeutic applications.
David Nutt is a psychiatrist and the Edmund J Safra Professor of Neuropsychopharmacology in the Division of Brain Science, Department of Medicine, Hammersmith Hospital, Imperial College London. Here, he uses a range of brain imaging methods to explore the effects of drugs on the brain, the causes of addiction and other psychiatric disorders and to search for new treatments. He has published over 400 original research articles, a similar number of reviews and books chapters, eight government reports on drugs and 28 books, including one for the general public, Drugs: without the hot air, which won the Transmission Prize in 2014. He is President of the European Brain Council and Founding Chair of DrugScience (formerly the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs (ISCD). He has been president of the British Association of Psychopharmacology and the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology. He broadcasts widely to the general public on radio and television. In 2010, The Times Eureka science magazine voted him one of the 100 most important figures in British science, and the only psychiatrist in the list. In 2013, he was awarded the John Maddox Prize from Nature/Sense about Science for standing up for science.
In 2005, while completing a master’s degree in psychoanalysis, Robin Carhart-Harris contacted Amanda Feilding, expressing an interest in the scientific study of psychedelic drugs. Amanda put him in contact with Professor David Nutt (then Professor of Psychopharmacology at the University of Bristol), who recommended that he should work towards a doctorate on sleep in MDMA users, and this is what he did over the next four years (2005–2009). In 2009, he re-joined Professor Nutt’s team as a postdoctoral researcher at Imperial, where he began working within the Beckley–Imperial Programme on the pilot study with psilocybin. This initial study developed into the series of studies, the results of which were published in 2012 in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences to much acclaim. Since then, the programme has carried out pioneering research into MDMA and LSD.
Yes it is legal. The researchers require a special license from the Home Office in order to be allowed to do this. To do a human research study involving the administration of a drug, the study also needs to be given a favourable opinion from an ethics committee, which this one has.
Why have there been no LSD studies in the UK for 50 years?
Studies with Schedule-1 drugs are particularly difficult to conduct because of the cost and difficulty of getting licenses. However, perhaps the main reason why there have not been any human research studies on LSD is that there is a lot of stigma surrounding the drug, i.e. researchers have not wanted to work with LSD because they have felt that their peers might consider it dangerous and reckless work. Moreover, until recently it was considered impossible to gain ethical approval for an LSD study.
Why have you done this study now?
The present study has followed naturally from our previous research with psychedelics. Has LSD been studied recently in other countries? There has never been a brain-imaging study investigating the mechanisms of how LSD works but the first report on clinical research with LSD was published this year by a research team in Switzerland. This study looked at the safety and efficacy of LSD as an aid to psychotherapy for the treatment of anxiety related to dying. Is it dangerous to give people LSD? What are the risks? It can be dangerous for people to take LSD, but the dangers associated with its use are reduced significantly if it is given in a research setting with appropriate care. The two main risks associated with LSD are: (1) flashback phenomena, otherwise known as ‘hallucinogen persisting perceptual disorder’ (HPPD), which refers to the apparent persistence of unusual perceptual effects (e.g. visual ‘trailing’) associated with the acute effects of psychedelics; and (2) exacerbated mental health problems.
With respect to (1), studies have tended to show that HPPD is very rare (≈5% among recreational users). In the present study, we minimised this risk further by recruiting only individuals with prior experience with psychedelics that have never experienced symptoms of HPPD. With regard to (2), evidence tends to suggest that psychedelics are more prone to be associated with improvements in mental health outcomes than decrements. There are some very rare cases of psychotic reactions to LSD persisting beyond the drug’s acute effects, but the risk of this can be minimised by carefully screening volunteers, ensuring they have no personal or family history of psychosis, and including only individuals with prior experience with psychedelics who have not had psychotic reactions. Finally, the risk of dangerous behaviour under LSD is significantly reduced if the drug is administered in a controlled research environment.