How Can Illegal Drugs Help Our Brains: David Nutt (Transcript)

Full text of psychiatrist David Nutt’s talk: How can illegal drugs help our brains at TEDxBrussels conference. In this talk, he explains how through decades of education and training the brain constrains the contents of the mind by limiting its activity and directions. And then he shows how psychedelic drugs can break open these limitations to allow new ways of thinking that can help people overcome problems such as depression – and argue that the UN regulations controlling these drugs should be eased so much more therapeutic research can be conducted with these and other “illegal” drugs to benefit humanity.”

Listen to the MP3 Audio here:


David Nutt – Psychiatrist

Thank you. The last talk was about electronic technology and enhancing the brain.

My talk is about an old technology enhancing the brain; an old technology that of course, you all know and love, and that’s called drugs. But I’ll come to that in a minute.

I’m going to start with the brain because it’s the most complex and evolved element in the whole universe. It’s what got you here today, and hopefully, will get you home tonight.

A single mouse brain has more computing power than all the computers on Earth today. And your brains are at least a million times more powerful.

But unfortunately, it can go wrong. And over the last few years, we’ve discovered the scale of problems that brain disorders produce.

The sum total of illness and cost to society from brain disorders is greater than that from cancer, cardio-vascular disease, and diabetes put together.

You see on the graph there it’s the equivalent each year to nearly 800 billion euros. It is if we’re paying off the Greek debt every year in the burden of illness produced by brain disorders.

We know that investment in these disorders is not matching the enormous burden. Here, you can see on the left hand graph, the red circle; ‘brain disorders’ are way outside the predicted line of investment. They’re the largest disability, and the investment is disproportionately low.

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On the right-hand side, you can see one of the reasons for this. You can see the attrition rate for drugs that go through discovery into development.

Look at the second cylinder there. You can see that Alzheimer’s drugs — 200 Alzheimer’s drugs in development, only one reaches the clinic. The brain is a very difficult organ to treat.

Why does the brain go wrong?

Well, it goes wrong because of external influences: malnutrition, still a big problem; parental and other abuse – psychological and physical -; toxins – particularly alcohol. These are images of my own research showing a normal brain at the top and a brain severely damaged by alcohol misuse lower down.

Infections such as meningitis, encephalitis are still common, and trauma is a massive problem in terms of leading to long-term brain damage particularly in young men.

And then, there are internal aspects of the brain development that can go wrong: related conditions like autism. You can have acquired abnormalities like epilepsy and there are age-related changes such as dementia.

But the real focus of my talk today is how the brain limits itself and how we can perhaps expand its capacity or take away the limit it puts on itself.

Your brain is most flexible when you’re a baby. Some people would argue that the whole process of education is about taking away flexibility and forcing every one of you to think and behave in the same way. It’s about getting conformity of process which of course is useful if you’re trying to speak a language the same way as other people, but may not be useful if it limits how you can deal with other things such as problems.

And also, the constraining of the brain in itself can lead to problems; if there is not enough of it in the right place, you get disorders such as ADHD and schizophrenia.

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If you get excessive constraints, you can end up with disorders like OCD and addiction. And also the resilience in the brain can be impaired, and that will lead to disorders such as anxiety and depression.

And the core of my talk really is showing you how we now can understand the limitations that the brain constrains the mind with through using drugs.

And this research really goes back to the 1950s and the personal experience of this man, Aldous Huxley, who used peyote and used LSD, psychedelic drugs, to understand his mind.

He wrote about it in the book “The Doors of Perception,” and he used this quote from William Blake to explain how these drugs changed his mind. He said, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.”

And Huxley realized that what psychedelics do is take away this phenomenon that he inferred which is that “the brain is an instrument for focusing the mind.”

Modern neuroscience has shown they were right. Because, what we now know is that the brain creates what the mind thinks it’s doing. Here is an example of vision.

You might be looking out at a glorious sunset, but in reality, the light rays go into your retina and are transformed into a series of electrical impulses which pass into parts of your brain. And those parts of the brain reconstruct an image that they think you’re seeing.

And that image, in the words of Blake, is seeing through the constraints, the chinks of the cavern that your brain puts on it.

And if you have mental illness – for instance, depression or addiction – then what you see is also constrained by your brain. So depressed people don’t see even the brightness of the sky. They see a dull grey. And of course, people with addiction when they see through the chinks of their cavern, they simply see the drugs that they’re addicted to.

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Psychedelic drugs take away that limitation. They allow the mind to work in a much more flexible way. This is our research using psilocybin in magic mushroom juice.

Those two images contain the same number of connections. But on the left-hand image, under placebo, you see that most of the connections are around the edge. The brain talks to itself in regional ways.

But under psilocybin, there’s a massive cross-talk, much more integration; parts of the brain which haven’t talked to each other since you were children are able to engage. And that’s how people can get new insights and also, potentially overcome damage of dysfunction of the brain.

Here is another study using LSD showing essentially the same thing. On the left-hand side, you see the visual cortex is normally very local in how it works.

But under LSD, when people have their eyes closed, they can see enormously vivid, interesting sets of images. And that’s because the brain is much more interconnected under LSD than normal.

Here you see the visual cortex connects to most of the rest of the brain in that state. We’ve been able to utilize this liberation of processing of the brain, produced by psychedelics, to treat people with depression.

Here is a study published last year where we took people with depression who failed two previous anti-depressive treatments, and also had failed psychotherapy. They were given a single dose of psilocybin, and you can see there, that a week later, all of them had recovered to some extent, and half of them were now in a state of remission.

They were in the yellow bar there, which shows that their depression has actually gone away. And that’s not the first evidence that psychedelics have therapy or have therapeutic uses.

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