OPEN Foundation

U. Lang

Advances and challenges in neuroimaging studies on the effects of serotonergic hallucinogens: Contributions of the resting brain.


The effects of hallucinogenic drugs on the human brain have been studied since the earliest days of neuroimaging in the 1990s. However, approaches are often hard to compare and results are heterogeneous. In this chapter, we summarize studies investigating the effects of hallucinogens on the resting brain, with a special emphasis on replicability and limitations. In previous studies, similarities were observed between psilocybin, LSD, and ayahuasca, with respect to decreases in cerebral blood flow and increases in global functional connectivity in the precuneus and thalamus. Additionally, LSD consistently decreased functional connectivity within distinct resting state networks. Little convergence was observed for connectivity between networks and for blood flow in other brain regions. Although these studies are limited by small sample sizes and might be biased by unspecific drug effects on physiological parameters and the vascular system, current results indicate that neuroimaging could be a useful tool to elucidate the neuronal correlates of hallucinogenic effects.
Müller, F., Liechti, M. E., Lang, U. E., Borgwardt, S., Wilson, M. R., Webb, A., … & Lutz, K. (2018). Advances and challenges in neuroimaging studies on the effects of serotonergic hallucinogens: Contributions of the resting brain. Progress in brain research242, 159-177. 10.1016/bs.pbr.2018.08.004
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Increased thalamic resting-state connectivity as a core driver of LSD-induced hallucinations


It has been proposed that the thalamocortical system is an important site of action of hallucinogenic drugs and an essential component of the neural correlates of consciousness. Hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD can be used to induce profoundly altered states of consciousness, and it is thus of interest to test the effects of these drugs on this system.
100 μg LSD was administrated orally to 20 healthy participants prior to fMRI assessment. Whole brain thalamic functional connectivity was measured using ROI-to-ROI and ROI-to-voxel approaches. Correlation analyses were used to explore relationships between thalamic connectivity to regions involved in auditory and visual hallucinations and subjective ratings on auditory and visual drug effects.
LSD caused significant alterations in all dimensions of the 5D-ASC scale and significantly increased thalamic functional connectivity to various cortical regions. Furthermore, LSD-induced functional connectivity measures between the thalamus and the right fusiform gyrus and insula correlated significantly with subjective auditory and visual drug effects.
Hallucinogenic drug effects might be provoked by facilitations of cortical excitability via thalamocortical interactions. Our findings have implications for the understanding of the mechanism of action of hallucinogenic drugs and provide further insight into the role of the 5-HT2A -receptor in altered states of consciousness.
Mueller, F., Lenz, C., Dolder, P., Lang, U., Schmidt, A., Liechti, M., & Borgwardt, S. (2017). Increased thalamic resting‐state connectivity as a core driver of LSD‐induced hallucinations. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica. 10.1111/acps.12818
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Acute effects of LSD on amygdala activity during processing of fearful stimuli in healthy subjects


Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) induces profound changes in various mental domains, including perception, self-awareness and emotions. We used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate the acute effects of LSD on the neural substrate of emotional processing in humans. Using a double-blind, randomised, cross-over study design, placebo or 100μg LSD were orally administered to 20 healthy subjects before the fMRI scan, taking into account the subjective and pharmacological peak effects of LSD. The plasma levels of LSD were determined immediately before and after the scan. The study (including the a priori-defined study end point) was registered at before study start (NCT02308969). The administration of LSD reduced reactivity of the left amygdala and the right medial prefrontal cortex relative to placebo during the presentation of fearful faces (P<0.05, family-wise error). Notably, there was a significant negative correlation between LSD-induced amygdala response to fearful stimuli and the LSD-induced subjective drug effects (P<0.05). These data suggest that acute administration of LSD modulates the engagement of brain regions that mediate emotional processing.

Mueller, F., Lenz, C., Dolder, P. C., Harder, S., Schmid, Y., Lang, U. E., … & Borgwardt, S. (2017). Acute effects of LSD on amygdala activity during processing of fearful stimuli in healthy subjects. Translational Psychiatry, 7(4), e1084. 10.1038/tp.2017.54
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The antidepressant effect of ketamine: Mediated by AMPA receptors?

Inta, D., Sprengel, R., Borgwardt, S., Lang, U. E., & Gass, P. (2016). The antidepressant effect of ketamine: Mediated by AMPA receptors?. European Neuropsychopharmacology.
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Neuroimaging in moderate MDMA use: A systematic review


MDMA (“ecstasy”) is widely used as a recreational drug, although there has been some debate about its neurotoxic effects in humans. However, most studies have investigated subjects with heavy use patterns, and the effects of transient MDMA use are unclear. In this review, we therefore focus on subjects with moderate use patterns, in order to assess the evidence for harmful effects. We searched for studies applying neuroimaging techniques in man. Studies were included if they provided at least one group with an average of <50 lifetime episodes of ecstasy use or an average lifetime consumption of <100 ecstasy tablets. All studies published before July 2015 were included. Of the 250 studies identified in the database search, 19 were included.

There is no convincing evidence that moderate MDMA use is associated with structural or functional brain alterations in neuroimaging measures. The lack of significant results was associated with high methodological heterogeneity in terms of dosages and co-consumption of other drugs, low quality of studies and small sample sizes.

Mueller, F., Lenz, C., Steiner, M., Dolder, P. C., Walter, M., Lang, U. E., … & Borgwardt, S. (2016). Neuroimaging in moderate MDMA use: A systematic review. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 62, 21-34.
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22 May - Delivering Effective Psychedelic Clinical Trials