Does LSD Have Nootropic Properties? New Three-Part Study Says Yes
Research shows that an experience with a classic psychedelic can induce neural plasticity, promoting the formation of new connections in the brain. If psychedelic drugs induce neural plasticity — that is, the brain’s ability to modify, change, and adapt — could they also enhance cognition and memory?
In a newly published study in Experimental Neurology, researchers attempt to answer this question, examining if the neural plasticity induced by the classic serotonergic psychedelic LSD (or lysergic acid diethylamide), could be harnessed for its nootropic effects.
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What Is A Nootropic?
Nootropics, or “smart” drugs, are a class of substances that boost brain performance, enhance cognition and memory, and facilitate learning. They include prescription drugs such as Adderall, Ritalin (often prescribed for ADHD), and Axura (sometimes prescribed for Alzheimer’s disease), as well as naturally occurring compounds such as caffeine, nicotine, and L-theanine. Prescription drugs have stronger effects on memory and attention, while naturally occurring nootropics are typically mild in effect in comparison.
In recent years, the health trend of biohacking or “do-it-yourself biology” has led to increased interest in the use of nootropics. More recently, the popularization of mushrooms as supplements has also led to an explosion of fungi-based branded nootropics containing varieties like Lion’s Mane, Reishi, and Cordyceps. (It’s not uncommon to see underground brands include microdoses of psilocybin in their products).
While the study is among the first to officially investigate the nootropic properties of LSD, the idea that psychedelic drugs may boost cognition is not a new one. It is a belief from proponents of psychedelics that microdoses of LSD — approximately 10 micrograms, about one-tenth of a standard dose — can enhance performance and boost creativity.
LSD Affects Processes Involved In Neural Plasticity
A large team of researchers from several institutions in Brazil began by investigating the effects of LSD at the cellular level, first creating structures grown from human stem cells (in this case, reprogrammed skin cells donated by volunteers) called brain organoids to examine the drug’s effect on the brain.
Researcher Stevens K. Rehen explained the function of the brain-like structures to Healing Maps: “Human brain organoids give new ways to study neural cells in a dish by offering an invaluable model for the study of the human brain,” he said. “Brain organoids have been referred to as cellular aggregates resembling brain regions that partially reproduce the cytoarchitecture of the cortex and can develop multiple brain regions and cell types.”
Using the organoids, they found that LSD regulates multiple processes involved in neural plasticity. It affected processes like DNA replication (the process by which DNA makes a copy of itself during cell division), neural pathfinding (the process by which neurons locate and identify target cells), and importantly, mTOR signaling.
As Rehen explains, “mTOR is a protein kinase crucial for long-lasting synaptic plasticity, being at a metabolic crossroad between plasticity, memory, aging, and dementia. We found that mTOR pathway is one of the top 10 processes and pathways regulated by LSD in the brain organoids. Our results extend to humans the notion that the structural plasticity induced by psychedelics involves the mTOR pathway.”
This is important, Rehen said, because mTOR disturbance is a typical pathophysiological finding in neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.
LSD Enhances Novelty-Seeking In Rats
Next, the researchers conducted an experiment using rats to examine the effects of LSD on memory processes. Rats were given either a single dose of LSD or a placebo. Several days later, they were placed in an environment with familiar and novel objects to determine if their interest in certain objects would be affected.
“Testing the preference of rats to explore novel objects is a proxy for testing memorizing capability. One needs to familiarize with something before knowing it is not unknown,” César Rennó-Costa, another author of the study, told Healing Maps. “We use rats as a model because we can explore their physiology experimentally in ways we cannot do with humans.”
On average, the rats dosed with LSD spent more time with the novel objects. The researchers say their results imply that the neural plasticity induced by LSD enhanced novelty-seeking in rats, a measure of personality referring to one’s tendency to pursue new experiences.
Human Data Shows LSD Enhances Memory
In the third part of the investigation, researchers looked at the effects of LSD on humans in a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover study. A total of 25 healthy volunteers received two sessions; one in which they were given 50 micrograms of LSD, and another in which they were given a placebo. Participants had used LSD previously at least once but had remained abstinent from drugs in the two weeks leading up to the study.
To assess memory consolidation, encoding, and recall, participants were instructed to complete two different tasks the day after dosing: A 2D object-location task, and a Rey-Osterrieth Complex Figure test, which required participants to reproduce a complicated line drawing.
“With humans, we can test memory commitment directly using an altered matching game,” said Rennó-Costa. “We found that administering LSD enhanced… human performance in the matching game.”
Overall, participants tended to perform better on these tests on days following their LSD dose, suggesting that the drug could enhance subacute memory — however researchers point out that because participants were given a relatively low dose, the effects of LSD were not very strong.
They conclude that altogether, their results suggest LSD does in fact have nootropic effects.
The Future Of LSD
If LSD, considered one of the least-toxic drugs used non-medically, really does help to boost brain performance, enhance cognition and memory, and facilitate learning, will LSD-containing nootropics be a thing of the future?
While he does not speak for all authors of the study, Rennó-Costa is of the opinion that, although there is much work to be done first, it is not outside of the realm of possibility about LSD as a nootropic.
“There are many necessary steps before we know whether LSD can be released to the general public for its nootropic benefits. Our study demonstrates that LSD can enhance memory function under specific experimental conditions, but also found that this effect is dose and age-dependent. Therefore, the benefits might require precise administration and might not be available to everyone. Further research is necessary, but the road ahead is very promising,” he said.
“Still, from what we know, I would not recommend anyone to adventure him or herself with LSD before an important exam. At least not yet.”