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Your Brain on Drugs: LSD Myths

There are many myths about the effects LSD has on the brain. One popular legend is that if you do LSD a certain number of times, you will be declared “legally insane” or develop Schizophrenia.  Another is that once you’ve tried LSD, your body retains small amounts of LSD in your spinal fluid which it releases sporadically. Then there are the stories of people on LSD that walk in front of cars or jump off cliffs because they think can fly. Some of these myths are true – like people accidentally walking in front of traffic or drowning due to loss of inhibition which directly affects their judgment.  Some of these are myths or have yet to be scientifically proven to be true; like your body retaining small amounts of LSD after taking it. Both have contributed to the misunderstandings in popular culture of what LSD actually does to the brain.

Your Brain on Drugs: LSD Facts

It’s believed that LSD works similarly to serotonin, a neurotransmitter responsible for regulating moods, appetite, muscle control, sexuality, sleep and sensory perception. LSD seems to interfere with the way the brain’s serotonin’s receptors work. It may inhibit neurotransmission, stimulate it, or both. It also affects the way that the retinas process information and conduct that information to the brain.

Your Brain on Drugs: LSD Effects

The effects of LSD are highly subjective. LSD’s effects vary from person to person depending on dose, age, and life experience. Most users experience strong sensory and visual distortion. Colors may seem brighter, patterns could seem to “breathe” and users can experience an altered sense of time. LSD may also impair judgment and the ability to perceive danger, so accidents on LSD are common. Many LSD users are taking the drug while already using other drugs like alcohol, prescription pills, heroin or cocaine. The mixture of LSD and other drugs can cause extreme trips that can onset psychosis or underlying mental illnesses like Schizophrenia.

Your Brain on Drugs: LSD and Addiction

LSD is not physically addictive. LSD tolerance can develop and cause the user to take a stronger dose each time, but physical withdrawal symptoms from LSD are rare when use is stopped. Since addicts crave dependability and are constantly chasing a greater “high” repeated LSD trips tend to lose their novelty, and what once seemed magical becomes every day and commonplace.

Your Brain on Drugs: LSD and “Bad Trips”

It is quite possible to have a bad reaction to LSD. This is referred to as a “bad trip” and may cause panic, confusion, suspicion, anxiety, and loss of control. Very high doses or LSD containing other chemicals and drugs increase the likelihood of a bad trip. Because street drugs are not legal and therefore not regulated, it is not uncommon for dealers to sell chemicals that are not LSD at all. These chemicals can also cause a bad trip.

Your Brain on Drugs: LSD and Mental Illness

While there is no evidence that LSD causes brain damage of any kind, some LSD users experience severe, frightening thoughts and feelings, fear of losing control, fear of insanity and death, and despair while using LSD; causing anxiety, panic attacks, or full blown mental psychosis. Whether LSD causes mental illness on its own, or if it simply exacerbates an underlying mental condition, is still debated among experts. However, the effects of this LSD-induced psychosis, though very rare, can be permanent.

Your Brain on Drugs: LSD and “Flashbacks”

Some users report having “acid flashbacks” for months or years after taking LSD. Flashbacks are a recurrence of some part of the experience of the trip, without having taking the drug again. A small percentage of LSD users experience what is known as Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder.  People suffering from this syndrome experience a form of visual hallucination (or flashbacks) that are persistent, instead of momentary.

Your Brain on Drugs: Bottom Line

LSD does not cause immediate brain damage or physical addiction but it can onset underlying mental illness. It is not retained in the body indefinitely but in rare cases can contribute to an accidental death. These rare cases of people falling to their death while tripping on LSD were likely either suicides or accidents caused by disorientation or misjudgment of distance, rather than an attempt to “fly.” LSD has been used in the past to treat alcoholism, mental illness and is now being researched to improve the quality of life of terminal ill patients.

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