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Research Programme

22/08/2013

Over the last 18 years, the Beckley Foundation’s Scientific Programme, led by Amanda Feilding, has undertaken pioneering research and produced ground-breaking results on currently-controlled psychoactive substances. Over 35 papers have been published in in influential, high-impact, peer-reviewed scientific journals. Amanda has been a pioneering force initiating, developing, and conducting scientific research projects in collaboration with partners at leading institutions, such as Imperial College London, University College London, King’s College London, Johns Hopkins University, the Sechenov Institute, and many others. The aim has been to build our understanding of how these substances work, how they affect the brain and consciousness, and how they can be used for the betterment of humankind, in the treatment of illness, the expansion of awareness, and the enhancement of openness and creativity.

The Beckley/Imperial research programme

The Beckley-Imperial research programme is a collaborative endeavor between the Beckley Foundation and scientists at Imperial College London. The programme was established in 2009 following several years of discussion between Amanda Feilding, the founder and director of the Beckley Foundation, and David Nutt, Professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London.

Its main focus is on conducting pioneering research with psychedelic drugs. By utilizing the most advanced scientific technologies available to us at a world leading university, the programme aims to understand how psychedelics work on the brain to produce their unique subjective effects. In doing so, significant new avenues for the treatment for mental illnesses can be opened up and important new insights on the nature of consciousness can emerge.

The Beckley-Imperial programme was responsible for the world’s first studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and magnetoencephalography (MEG) to investigate the acute effects of psilocybin (the active ingredient of magic mushrooms) and MDMA (ecstasy). These studies were coordinated by Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris and resulted in novel new insights on how these drugs work on the brain (Carhart-Harris et al 2011a, 2011b, 2013). For example, they showed for the first time that psilocybin works by temporarily destabilizing a network of brain regions that is critically involved in high level cognitive functions such as those that give us our sense of possessing an intact sense of self. This network is typically overactive in depression but we found that it is deactivated by psilocybin. Thus, consequently the scientific team at Imperial College London won a grant from the Medical Research Council to investigate the efficacy of psilocybin in depression. This grant will allow the team to initiate the world’s first clinical trial to use psilocybin in the treatment of depression. A better acknowledgement and demonstration of what the programme aims to accomplish could not have been dreamed of.

Other recent studies carried out through the Beckley-Imperial collaboration have yielded ground-breaking insights into the mechanisms of MDMA and how this substance could be used in a therapeutic context e.g. in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. All our work has received widespread international media coverage and has significantly raised the profile of psychedelics as potential therapeutic and academic tools.

Our goals here at the Beckley Foundation is to break the taboo surrounding illicit substances, which involves supporting the necessary scientific research to understand how psychoactive substances work in the brain.

We have contributed to the MDMA study whose results have recently been published by Imperial College. This piece of research, a part of the Beckley-Imperial Psychopharmacological Research Programme sheds light on how the human brain functions under the influence of MDMA. Click here to find out more.

 

A call for funding: the very first fMRI/MEG studies with LSD and cannabis

We ask for your generosity in order to help fund a new and important project that is tabled to begin this autumn. The Beckley-Imperial programme is currently initiating the first-ever fMRI and MEG-studies of LSD and cannabis. LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) was discovered by the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann in 1938. Hofmann’s dream of seeing the immense scientific potential of LSD properly exploited is a sentiment shared by the Beckley Foundation.  Although there are few studies that involve administration of THC and CBD, at present no fMRI and MEG studies exist that examined the acute effects of pure inhaled cannabis on the brain. Such a study is important as cannabis is the most commonly used illegal drug in the UK, but yet little is known about its brain mechanisms.

Importantly, the Beckley-Imperial programme recently we received official ethical and institutional approval to carry out these studies at Imperial College London in the UK.

The project will start with a neuroimaging-free pilot-study which will assess the strength and duration of subjective effects of LSD and of cannabis. This is important foundation work for the subsequent brain imaging studies.  The subsequent brain imaging studies will form the major part of this project. In one study, we will use fMRI, a scanning technique that allows us to acquire detailed spatial images of brain activity. The strength of fMRI is that it can detect changes in brain activity in the whole of the brain. However, a limitation of fMRI is that it cannot detect the fast activity that is known to occur in the brain and for this we must use MEG. MEG, the magnetic counterpart of EEG, is a technology that can detect changes in brain activity at a broad range of temporal frequencies. Thus, using the complementary techniques of fMRI and MEG will enable us to address the question of how LSD and cannabis work on the brain to produce its effects with a unique level of comprehension. For these reasons, this is truly pioneering research.

Past research

Broadband cortical desynchronisation underlies the human psychedelic state – Muthukumaraswamy S.D., Carhart-Harris R.L., Nutt D.J. & Feilding A. et al (Journal of Neuroscience, 2013,  accepted and awaiting release)

The report on this research has just been accepted by one of the leading neuroscience journals, the journal of neuroscience. The aim of the study was to use MEG to directly assess the effects of a psychedelic on neural activity in the human brain . MEG recordings were performed in fifteen healthy volunteers prior to and immediately following intravenous administration of psilocybin under resting conditions and while they performied a simple visuomotor task. . Decreased oscillatory power across a broad frequency-range was found after psilocybin and this effect was mainly localized to association cortices. This result is congruent a previous landmark study conducting by the Beckley-Imperial team which found decreased blood flow and connectivity in the same regions (ref). A sophisticated modeling analysis also revealed the precise cellular action of psilocybin – i.e. that the drug had produced its desynchronising effect on cortical activity by stimulating deep layer pyramidal neurons. This result is important as these cells are known to host a particular type of serotonin receptor which is the primary target of psychedelics. Thus, this study provides the most detailed information to date on how psychedelic drugs work on the brain to produce their effects.

 

Neural correlates of the psychedelic state as determined by fMRI studies with psilocybin. – Carhart-Harris R.L. et al (PNAS, Jan. 2012)

This study, published in one of the most prestigious scientific journals, measured brain activity after psilocybin using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and Arterial Spin Labelling (ASL). Healthy participants received intravenous psilocybin while under condition of rest. Psilocybin produced statistically significant decreases in cerebral blood flow and BOLD signal in cortical and subcortical regions of the brain including key nodes of the so-called ‘default mode network (DMN)’. Moreover, decreased in functional connectivity between frontal and parietal nodes of the DMN was found. Since activity and connectivity in the DMN is known to be elevated in depression, these results supported a potential antidepressant action of psilocybin and led to the aforementioned successful MRC grant application that is now funding the world’s first trial of a psychedelic in depression.  Click here to find out more.

 

Implications for psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy: a functional magnetic resonance imaging study with psilocybin Carhart-Harris R. L. et al. (British Journal of Psychiatry, Jan 2012)
This study, published in Britain’s leading psychiatry journal, the British journal of Psychiatry, tested the hypothesis that psilocybin facilitates access to personal memories and emotions – enabling it to be used in conjunction with psychotherapy to facilitate personal insight. Healthy participants recollected positive memories while under the influence of psilocybin. The personal memories were rated as more vivid and visual under psilocybin and increased activations were seen in high level visual regions – consistent with this effect. These results were interpreted as supporting the hypothesis that psilocybin may be useful as a tool to assist psychotherapy. Click here find out more.

Functional connectivity measures after psilocybin: a novel drug model of early psychosis?Carhart-Harris R.L. et al (Schizophrenia Bulletin Oct. 2012)

This analysis was published in the highest impact scientific journal on Schizophrenia, Schizophrenia Bulletin. Most specifically, it measured the effects of psilocybin on functional connectivity between the default mode network (DMN) and the task positive network (TPN), two systems that usually operate in competition to ensure that internal and external processing is never confused. Psilocybin decreased the competition or ‘anti-correlation’ between the DMN and TPN in a manner that correlated with the drug’s subjective effects. Similar dcreases in anticorrelation  between the DMN-TPN have been found in psychosis and meditatory states, which share phenomenological similarities with the psychedelic state. We thus interpret the outcomes in relation to disturbed ego-boundaries in these states, a phenomenon which is promoted in meditation and the psychedelic state but considered pathological in psychosis. Click here to find out more.

 

Please not our fMRI research with MDMA is currently in review in the Biological Psychiatry and the International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology.

 

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