The human brain on LSD was first imaged by scientists last year. The image was the first solid evidence of the drug's ability to change the way our brains function. Researchers want to test whether microdosing LSD can offer the same mental boost. Microdosing is taking a small amount that doesn't have a hallucinogenic effect. They're also planning to pit microdosed humans against AI in the ancient Chinese game of Go to do it.
Lead researcher Amanda Feilding came up with the idea. Feilding took LSD (lysergic acid deithylamide) daily before work to boost her productivity and creativity before it was made illegal in 1968. At that time she also played a lot of Go in her spare time.
Feilding told Daniel Oberhaus from Motherboard that she found that if she was on LSD and her opponent wasn't, she won more games. That made it very clear that it improves cognitive function, particularly a kind of intuitive pattern recognition.
The Beckley Foundation for psychedelic research in the UK is now led by Feilding, which partly funded last year's brain imaging study. She's also well known in the neuroscience world for drilling a hole in her own head to study the science of consciousness.
A team from Imperial College London took 20 healthy volunteers in last year's study, gave them a hefty 75 micrograms of LSD one day and a placebo the next, and then studied their brains using three different image techniques.
It was found that while the volunteers were under the effects of LSD, their visual processing was no longer limited to the visual cortex, which are multiple regions of the brain were kicking in, as though they were seeing with their eyes shut.
The brain also began to connect with itself in interesting ways. One of researcher, Robin Carhart-Harris, said that normally, our brain consists of independent networks that perform separate specialised functions, such as vision, movement and hearing - as well as more complex things like attention. However, under LSD the separateness of these networks breaks down and instead you see a more integrated or unified brain.
Since its creation in 1938, people have reported that the LSD is capable of elevating their minds and changing their thinking. Official research into the drug pretty much ground to a halt when it was made illegal in the US almost 50 years ago.
Despite their potential, the current side effects aren't really acceptable. It's not exactly practical to get high on a full dose of LSD before work to improve your creativity, or before bed to help with depression.
After taking the drug, Feilding tells Oberhaus that the participants' brains will be imaged using MRI and a technique called MEG, while they perform a range of cognitive tasks. The researchers will be pitting them against AI in Go - a highly strategic game that's a little like Chess, but with a great deal more variability.
The AI researchers have also seen Go as a difficult domain for machine learning due to the game's complexity and openness. It was only last year that an AI, Google DeepMind's AlphaGo, was able to beat a human grandmaster at the game. But we don't expect Feilding will be aiming to tackle an AI quite on that level.
Feilding's study could show us whether small doses of LSD might give us back a competitive advantage.
There's no official timeframe for the study, but the foundation has just launched a crowdfunding campaign and want to raise around US$350,000. Feilding told Erin Brodwin from Business Insider that the study could begin as early as this month, and they hope to get first results by the end of the year.