Changes in Global and Thalamic Brain Connectivity in LSD-induced Altered States of Consciousness Are Attributable to the 5-HT2A Receptor

Elife. 2018 Oct 25;7:e35082. doi: 10.7554/eLife.35082.


Background: Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) has agonist activity at various serotonin (5-HT) and dopamine receptors. Despite the therapeutic and scientific interest in LSD, specific receptor contributions to its neurobiological effects remain unknown.

Methods: We therefore conducted a double-blind, randomized, counterbalanced, cross-over studyduring which 24 healthy human participants received either (i) placebo+placebo, (ii) placebo+LSD (100 µg po), or (iii) Ketanserin, a selective 5-HT2A receptor antagonist,+LSD. We quantified resting-state functional connectivity via a data-driven global brain connectivity method and compared it to cortical gene expression maps.

Results: LSD reduced associative, but concurrently increased sensory-somatomotor brain-wide and thalamic connectivity. Ketanserin fully blocked the subjective and neural LSD effects. Whole-brain spatial patterns of LSD effects matched 5-HT2A receptor cortical gene expression in humans.

Conclusions: Together, these results strongly implicate the 5-HT2A receptor in LSD’s neuropharmacology. This study therefore pinpoints the critical role of 5-HT2A in LSD’s mechanism, which informs its neurobiology and guides rational development of psychedelic-based therapeutics.

Funding: Funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation, the Swiss Neuromatrix Foundation, the Usona Institute, the NIH, the NIAA, the NARSAD Independent Investigator Grant, the Yale CTSA grant, and the Slovenian Research Agency.

Clinical trial number: NCT02451072

Keywords: LSD; brain; fMRI; functional connectivity; human; human biology; medicine; neuroscience; psychedelics; serotonin.

Plain Language Summary

The psychedelic drug LSD alters thinking and perception. Users can experience hallucinations, in which they, for example, see things that are not there. Colors, sounds and objects can appear distorted, and time can seem to speed up or slow down. These changes bear some resemblance to the changes in thinking and perception that occur in certain psychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia. Studying how LSD affects the brain could thus offer insights into the mechanisms underlying these conditions. There is also evidence that LSD itself could help to reduce the symptoms of depression and anxiety disorders. Preller et al. have now used brain imaging to explore the effects of LSD on the brains of healthy volunteers. This revealed that LSD reduced communication among brain areas involved in planning and decision-making, but it increased communication between areas involved in sensation and movement. Volunteers whose brains showed the most communication between sensory and movement areas also reported the strongest effects of LSD on their thinking and perception. Preller et al. also found that another drug called Ketanserin prevented LSD from altering how different brain regions communicate. It also prevented LSD from inducing changes in thinking and perception. Ketanserin blocks a protein called the serotonin 2A receptor, which is activated by a brain chemical called serotonin that, amongst other roles, helps to regulate mood. By mapping the location of the gene that produces the serotonin 2A receptor, Preller et al. showed that the receptor is present in brain regions that show altered communication after LSD intake, therefore pinpointing the importance of this receptor in the effects of LSD. Psychiatric disorders that produce psychotic symptoms affect vast numbers of people worldwide. Further research into how LSD affects the brain could help us to better understand how such symptoms arise, and may also lead to the development of more effective treatments for a range of mental health conditions.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Cross-Over Studies
  • Double-Blind Method
  • Female
  • Hallucinogens / metabolism*
  • Healthy Volunteers
  • Humans
  • Lysergic Acid Diethylamide / metabolism*
  • Male
  • Neural Pathways / drug effects*
  • Placebos / administration & dosage
  • Serotonin 5-HT2 Receptor Antagonists / metabolism*
  • Thalamus / drug effects*
  • Young Adult


  • Hallucinogens
  • Placebos
  • Serotonin 5-HT2 Receptor Antagonists
  • Lysergic Acid Diethylamide

Associated data