Molecular and Functional Imaging Studies of Psychedelic Drug Action in Animals and Humans

Molecules. 2021 Apr 22;26(9):2451. doi: 10.3390/molecules26092451.


Hallucinogens are a loosely defined group of compounds including LSD, N,N-dimethyltryptamines, mescaline, psilocybin/psilocin, and 2,5-dimethoxy-4-methamphetamine (DOM), which can evoke intense visual and emotional experiences. We are witnessing a renaissance of research interest in hallucinogens, driven by increasing awareness of their psychotherapeutic potential. As such, we now present a narrative review of the literature on hallucinogen binding in vitro and ex vivo, and the various molecular imaging studies with positron emission tomography (PET) or single photon emission computer tomography (SPECT). In general, molecular imaging can depict the uptake and binding distribution of labelled hallucinogenic compounds or their congeners in the brain, as was shown in an early PET study with N1-([11C]-methyl)-2-bromo-LSD ([11C]-MBL); displacement with the non-radioactive competitor ketanserin confirmed that the majority of [11C]-MBL specific binding was to serotonin 5-HT2A receptors. However, interactions at serotonin 5HT1A and other classes of receptors and pleotropic effects on second messenger pathways may contribute to the particular experiential phenomenologies of LSD and other hallucinogenic compounds. Other salient aspects of hallucinogen action include permeability to the blood-brain barrier, the rates of metabolism and elimination, and the formation of active metabolites. Despite the maturation of radiochemistry and molecular imaging in recent years, there has been only a handful of PET or SPECT studies of radiolabeled hallucinogens, most recently using the 5-HT2A/2C agonist N-(2[11CH3O]-methoxybenzyl)-2,5-dimethoxy- 4-bromophenethylamine ([11C]Cimbi-36). In addition to PET studies of target engagement at neuroreceptors and transporters, there is a small number of studies on the effects of hallucinogenic compounds on cerebral perfusion ([15O]-water) or metabolism ([18F]-fluorodeoxyglucose/FDG). There remains considerable scope for basic imaging research on the sites of interaction of hallucinogens and their cerebrometabolic effects; we expect that hybrid imaging with PET in conjunction with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) should provide especially useful for the next phase of this research.

Keywords: PET; SPECT; hallucinogens; molecular imaging; serotonin receptors.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biomarkers
  • Carrier Proteins
  • Cerebrovascular Circulation
  • Clinical Studies as Topic
  • Drug Evaluation, Preclinical
  • Drug Monitoring
  • Energy Metabolism
  • Hallucinogens / chemistry
  • Hallucinogens / metabolism*
  • Hallucinogens / pharmacology*
  • Hallucinogens / therapeutic use
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Molecular Imaging*
  • Molecular Structure
  • Positron-Emission Tomography
  • Protein Binding
  • Tomography, Emission-Computed, Single-Photon


  • Biomarkers
  • Carrier Proteins
  • Hallucinogens