Category: Biology


Can acid dissolve the social isolation of autism and Asperger’s syndrome?

Aaron Paul Orsini felt utterly alone in the world: emotionally numb and devoid of any sense of connection with anybody, including himself. Sunk deep in depression since his teens, he spent much of his time alone in his bedroom, as he puts it, “trying to figure out how the game of being human worked … I kept going to therapy. I kept reading books. I kept working at my desk job. I kept trying new medications. I kept failing, time and time again, with the simple act of identifying the emotional needs of myself and others.”

He spoke to his therapist about his struggles to maintain contact with friends and make new ones, “and how even one-on-one moments felt very confusing at times. I was physically close to people such as my girlfriend, but still very much emotionally distant, from her, myself, and really, everyone in my life.”

At 23 he was at last given a diagnosis that made sense of his tortured efforts to connect socially: autism spectrum disorder. But while the revelation was intellectually interesting, he says, it left him in precisely the same bind: unable to make sense of his own emotions or others’, “feeling irretrievably broken” and increasingly having thoughts about ending it all.

He even began to lose his few remaining close connections. People just weren’t prepared to put up with him any longer, he recalls. He quit his job and shortly afterwards matters came to a head when a loyal friend was knocked down and killed by a drunk driver. “This was hell. And there was no escaping it. That was really how I seemed to believe my life would go. And I was so, so exhausted by that belief.”

In a last-ditch attempt to break out of the psychological prison in which he found himself, Aaron sold all his belongings, packed a bag and took off. Somehow he wound up alone in a forest where he consumed around 200 micrograms of LSD.

What happened next proved to be a turning point in his life. As he describes it in his newly published book Autism on Acid, “so many realisations seemed to come crashing in all at once” as the cognitive processing centres of his brain began to mesh for the first time. “Connection. Such connection. I felt it, in so many ways. I felt it.”

As the LSD took hold, he connected, “with the trees and breeze and sunlight around me, I experienced a deep moment of engagement. Yes. A moment of connection, with nature, with thoughts of my parents, my family, friends, and the whole of the human family and the broader web of life.”

Psychedelic connections
Psychedelics such as LSD increase chatter or “functional connectivity” between brain regions that are not usually on talking terms. Image: Otto Rapp/Flickr

Not only did he not feel like killing himself any more, he felt very much like living. “And while yes, this dose exposed me to many of the commonly described hallmarks of the larger-dose LSD experience, it was what happened after the peak effect that really blew my mind, or should I say, heart, into a state of absolute wonderment.”

After a few joyous hours of communing with the natural world, he stood up and walked out of the forest and encountered a stranger. “A stranger, yes, that suddenly, somehow, didn’t seem strange at all. And I said “Hi.” And they said “Hi.” And it felt, natural?! I felt, compelled, to connect. And that might not seem like that big of a deal, but for me, it was everything!”

While they talked about nothing of any consequence, he found he was aware of the feelings and intentions of the other in a way that had been impossible just a few hours earlier. “I felt the weight of their words. I sensed their state of mind. I grasped the context of what was unfolding. And for the first time in my entire 27 years of existence, I felt fully connected to the person opposite me … I could be conscious of the impact of my words and actions, because I felt them, within myself, within the person across from me. Empathy. Arresting empathy. I felt it.”

What Aaron was experiencing was the dawning of “theory of mind” – an intuitive awareness of others’ thoughts, feelings and intentions, and how the particular words he chose, their intonation and delivery would impact how he or she would feel. This ability is lacking to a greater or lesser degree among people “on the spectrum” of autism, which ranges from the high functioning of Asperger’s at one end to profound disablement at the other, and it helps explain their vulnerability to social isolation, anxiety and depression.

Aaron is not the only autistic man to make claims publicly about the beneficial effects of psychedelic drugs on their condition. A quick internet search reveals three other compelling examples. There’s a young British man called Alyx who blogs about his journeys of discovery on magic mushrooms, which have apparently allowed him to ditch his unhealthy computer obsessions and make eye contact with his carer for the first time; a YouTube video of an American who remains remarkably coherent after a very large, enlightening dose of LSD; and an interview on the Voices in the Dark podcast with a man who claims LSD and MDMA “opened a door he didn’t know existed” into the social world of his fellow humans. Other positive accounts can be found on Reddit, such as this one.

There have been no formal scientific investigations into the effects of classic psychedelics on autism for almost 50 years, but between 1959 and 1974 LSD was tried as an experimental therapy for children with severe autism aged between six and ten who hadn’t responded to any other treatment. The experiments were not only ethically questionable, however, they were also poorly designed by today’s standards, making any firm conclusions impossible. Nonetheless, the researchers who conducted them consistently reported that the drug led to improved speech, greater emotional responsiveness, more positive mood, including frequent smiling and laughter, and decreases in obsessive behaviour.

Interestingly, in a recent survey of a mixed group of people who take regular microdoses of psychedelic drugs in the belief they improve their cognitive and emotional functioning, respondents on the autistic spectrum reported no significant improvements in their symptoms. This makes sense in the light of a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 2006 which found that people with Asperger’s have a lower density of the receptors to which psychedelic molecules bind (known as serotonin 2A receptors) in key brain regions.

If true, this would not only explain why microdoses have little apparent effect on autism symptoms but also the unusually high tolerance that people on the spectrum appear to have for much larger doses of psychedelics.

The same study also found that the density of serotonin 2A receptors in the brains of people with Asperger’s was inversely proportional to impairments in their ability to communicate socially. In other words, those subjects with the lowest receptor density performed worst in social situations.

There is known to be weaker connectivity between key regions in the brains of people with autism compared with “neurotypicals” while they perform tasks involving theory of mind: a skill vital for connecting with other people socially and emotionally. In particular, impaired connectivity between nodes of the “default mode network” – the network responsible for theory of mind and self-referential processing – has been linked to their difficulties intuiting the thoughts and feelings of others.

LSD and psilocybin acutely increase connectivity between brain regions. So in theory, by boosting connectivity, at least temporarily, they could provide people on the spectrum with flashes of insight into a world of social communication from which they’ve been excluded.

LSD functional connectivity ring
Functional connectivity between 132 brain regions on LSD. Yellow and red indicate increased connectivity, blue indicates reduced connectivity. Müller et al 2018

People on the spectrum are often excellent at focusing on fine details but this “superpower” seems to come at the expense of aspects of the bigger picture, notably social awareness and communication: they can’t see the wood for the trees. Another downside of this intense, narrow focus are overwhelming, distressing feelings of sensory overload in chaotic, unpredictable situations.

According to a leading theory of how the central nervous system works, the brain functions as a multilayered information-processing hierarchy, with predictions about the world being sent downwards from higher cognitive regions, while “prediction errors” – the discrepancies between these predictions and sensory data – pass upwards from the senses to update the brain’s models of reality.

Crucially, brain chemicals such as serotonin, dopamine and noradrenaline fine-tune the flow of information through this processing hierarchy. They control the volume or “gain” of the signals, adjusting the relative influence of top-down predictions and bottom-up sensory prediction errors.

Psychedelic molecules bind to serotonin receptors in brain regions near the top of the hierarchy, which is why they are proving such promising tools for breaking the dominance of unhelpful emotional and cognitive models in people suffering from a wide range of mental illnesses, from anxiety and depression to obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and post traumatic stress disorder. They shake things up, promoting cross-talk between brain regions that don’t usually communicate, opening a window of opportunity for relearning.

Autism can also be characterised as an imbalance between bottom-up and top-down signalling leading to entrenched, maladaptive cognitive models. So it makes sense that psychedelics might rebalance or “re-tune” the autistic mind to help people on the spectrum see the bigger social, emotional picture.

“LSD was the turnkey for my life,” Aaron writes in his book. “It simultaneously saved my life while at the same time imbuing it with a sense of meaning, connection, and accessibility.”

It goes almost without saying that psychedelic researchers are anxious not to repeat the mistakes of the Sixties, so it may be several years before they turn their attention to the most controversial potential therapeutic uses for drugs such as LSD and psilocybin, and the psychedelic tea ayahuasca, not least autism and bipolar disorder (which I’ve written about in a previous post).

Aaron doesn’t recommend anyone else on the spectrum takes the same path he did. “LSD is still an unregulated and illegal drug. So anyone who hears of my story, please, please, please, for the sake of your own safety and the safety of others, please do not consider this story to be an invitation to try this at home … But maybe, someday, try this under the supervision of trained and certified professionals.”

All proceeds from the sale of Autism on Acid: How LSD Helped Me Bridge the ASD-Neurotypical Divide by Aaron Paul Orsini (@AutismOnAcid) will be donated to psychedelic research organisations

psilocybin brain connectivity
Brain connectivity on placebo and on psilocybin, the psychedelic ingredient of magic mushrooms. Image: Beckley Foundation





Meditation brightens mood by pumping up dopamine levels

In an age of instant gratification and limited attention spans, why would anyone take up meditation? Perhaps for its soothing, stress-busting effects? Focusing on their breath or a mantra, even beginners start to notice the calming influence of their body’s “relaxation response”, the physiological flipside of the adrenaline-fuelled fight-or-flight response. Among other things the relaxation response slows respiration and heart rate, eases muscle tension and lowers blood pressure, and the changes are associated with a quieting of the brain’s “default mode network”, responsible for mind-wandering, rumination and worry.

But can that really be the whole story?

A peaceful mind is a wonderful thing and for many this is the biggest incentive to meditate regularly – not least for those of us prone to anxiety and depression – but there is another, related benefit that has received scant scientific or medical attention: meditation can be pleasurable, even ecstatic. In the Buddhist meditation known as jhana, for example, the early stages are characterised not only by feelings of peacefulness, but also joy and happiness. Continue reading “Meditation brightens mood by pumping up dopamine levels”

The man on a lone mission to prove ayahuasca can treat bipolar disorder

Ayahuasca vine Banisteriopsis caapi
The ayahuasca vine Banisteriopsis caapi which contains an enzyme that prevents the breakdown of a wide range of psychoactive drugs. Credit: Jairo Gavlis Henao/Flickr

Expert opinion is heavily weighted against Benjamin Mudge. “If you asked your average psychedelic scientist, your average ayahuasca ceremony facilitator or expert in the field, or if you asked your average psychiatrist,” he says, “they would all say ayahuasca is dangerous for people with bipolar disorder because there’s a risk of manic depressive mood swings getting worse.”

And yet Mudge regularly drinks the South American psychedelic brew, claiming that it has stabilised his own bipolar disorder. (more…)

A puke bucket and an ancient medicine: is ayahuasca the future of PTSD therapy?

Combat posttraumatic stress disorder PTSD
Combat veterans with PTSD are beating a path to Peru in the hope that the plant medicine ayahuasca will help them process traumatic memories. Credit: Peter Murphy/Flickr

I’m sitting on a blue plastic, wipe-down mattress with my back to a wooden pillar. Within arm’s reach on the floor is a small torch to light my way to the toilet during the night, on the other side an orange plastic bucket to puke into. As the light fades my four companions, each with his or her own plastic mattress and bucket, disappear from view while on every side the barks, croaks, growls and cries of jungle life grow louder. Twenty minutes ago I gulped down a draught of the bitter psychedelic brew known as ayahuasca and I have convinced myself that I can feel its hot, unstoppable progress through my body, from my seething guts into my veins and onwards to my brain.

This is hardly a recreational drug experience, what with the nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea, not to mention the possibility of a truly terrifying trip, yet thousands now beat a path to Peru, Ecuador and Brazil every year to drink ayahuasca. Some are just looking for an exotic thrill, but others hope for enlightenment and healing from this ancient plant medicine. In the past few years, many of them have been war veterans desperate to escape the nightmares of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Read more at where this post was first published.

This is the happiness of the Buddha

Buddha statue in Vietnam

Last weekend, a few months after the publication of Siddhartha’s Brain in Dutch, I gave a lecture about the science of mindfulness to a very polite, attentive audience at the wonderful Brainwash Festival in Amsterdam. Here’s a transcript.

Ladies and gentlemen, each and every one of us here will face two key problems in our lives. The first problem is that as creatures of biology, particularly when we’re young, we spend lots of time and energy pursuing the pleasures of sex, money, social status. And as biological creatures we also invest a lot of energy trying to avoid pain and unpleasantness.

For most people, this is what they mean when they talk about the pursuit of happiness. But pleasures never last and sooner or later, as we get older, we’re all going to experience the pain and unpleasantness of ill health and ageing. It’s just a fact of life.

So that’s our first problem, and I’m sure none of this is news to you.

The second problem is much more surprising and counterintuitive, but is just as important. The second problem is that we think way too much. Every second that we’re awake, our lives are dominated by what’s going through our minds. (more…)

Meditation research: from “career suicide” to mainstream science

Meditating at sunset

“Disbelieving and hostile” is how Herbert Benson describes the reaction of fellow cardiologists at Harvard Medical School in the early 1970s when they learned he was studying the physiological effects of transcendental meditation. They thought he’d sold out to the hippies. “I had to conduct two careers at that time,” the 80-year-old told me over the phone from Boston. “One as a cardiologist and the other as ‘my crazy thing’.” At one point there was a real possibility he could be thrown out of Harvard. (more…)

Can meditation slow ageing?

OldAge2Do people who meditate age more slowly? It seems unlikely on the face of it. How could sitting immobile with one’s eyes closed, perhaps focusing on the breath, possibly keep the Grim Reaper at bay? That said, the Buddha – surely the archetypal meditator – is reputed to have lived to 80, which must have been an exceptionally ripe old age in 5th century BCE India. And according to Buddhist scriptures, even after 80 years in this realm of existence, in the end it wasn’t old age that finished him off but food poisoning.

Read the rest of the article at The Guardian where it was originally published on 3 March 2016.

Image: Kris Krüg