by Daniel Oberhaus
Amanda Feilding used to take lysergic acid diethylamide every day to boost creativity and productivity at work before LSD, known as acid, was made illegal in 1968. During her downtime, Feilding, who now runs the Beckley Foundation for psychedelic research, would get together with her friends to play the ancient Chinese game of Go, and came to notice something curious about her winning streaks.
“I found that if I was on LSD and my opponent wasn’t, I won more games,” Feilding told me over Skype. “For me that was a very clear indication that it improves cognitive function, particularly a kind of intuitive pattern recognition.”
An interesting observation to be sure. But was LSD actually helping Feilding in creative problem solving?
A half-century ban on psychedelic research has made answering this question in a scientific manner impossible. In recent years, however, psychedelic research has been experiencing something of a “renaissance” and now Feilding wants to put her intuition to the test by running a study in which participants will “microdose” while playing Go—a strategy game that is like chess on steroids—against an artificial intelligence.
Microdosing LSD is one of the hallmarks of the so-called “Psychedelic Renaissance.” It’s a regimen that involves regularly taking doses of acid that are so low they don’t impart any of the drug’s psychedelic effects. Microdosers claim the practice results in heightened creativity, lowered depression, and even relief from chronic somatic pain.
But so far, all evidence in favor of microdosing LSD has been based on self-reports, raising the possibility that these reported positive effects could all be placebo. So the microdosing community is going to have to do some science to settle the debate. That means clinical trials with quantifiable results like the one proposed by Feilding.
As the first scientific trial to investigate the effects of microdosing, Feilding’s study will consist of 20 participants who will be given low doses—10, 20 and 50 micrograms of LSD—or a placebo on four different occasions. After taking the acid, the brains of these subjects will be imaged using MRI and MEG while they engage in a variety of cognitive tasks, such as the neuropsychology staples the Wisconsin Card Sorting test and the Tower of London test. Importantly, the participants will also be playing Go against an AI, which will assess the players’ performance during the match.
By imaging the brain while it’s under the influence of small amounts of LSD, Feilding hopes to learn how the substance changes connectivity in the brain to enhance creativity and problem solving. If the study goes forward, this will only be the second time that subjects on LSD have had their brain imaged while tripping. (That 2016 study at Imperial College London was also funded by the Beckley Foundation, which found that there was a significant uptick in neural activity in areas of the brain associated with vision during acid trips.)
Before Feilding can go ahead with her planned research, a number of obstacles remain in her way, starting with funding. She estimates she’ll need to raise about $350,000 to fund the study.
“It’s frightening how expensive this kind of research is,” Feilding said. “I’m very keen on trying to alter how drug policy categorizes these compounds because the research is much more costly simply because LSD is a controlled substance.”
To tackle this problem, Feilding has partnered with Rodrigo Niño, a New York entrepreneur who recently launched Fundamental, a platform for donations to support psychedelic research at institutions like the Beckley Foundation, Johns Hopkins University, and New York University.
The study is using smaller doses of LSD than Feilding’s previous LSD study, so she says she doesn’t anticipate problems getting ethical clearance to pursue this. A far more difficult challenge will be procuring the acid to use in her research. In 2016, she was able to use LSD that had been synthesized for research purposes by a government certified lab, but she suspects that this stash has long since been used up.
But if there’s anyone who can make the impossible possible, it would be Feilding, a psychedelic science pioneer known as much for drilling a hole in her own head (https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/drilling-a-hole-in-your-head-for-a-higher-state-of-consciousness) to explore consciousness as for the dozens of peer-reviewed scientific studies on psychedelic use she has authored in her lifetime. And according to Feilding, the potential benefits of microdosing are too great to be ignored and may even come to replace selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs as a common antidepressant.
“I think the microdose is a very delicate and sensitive way of treating people,” said Feilding. “We need to continue to research it and make it available to people.”