We Finally Know Why Acid Trips Last So Long

And scientists hope to use the finding to develop better psychiatric drugs.
January 26, 2017, 5:00pm
Stuart Dee / Getty Images

Researchers think they've discovered why an acid trip lasts so damn long and it's pretty heavy. For a study in the journal Cell, researchers essentially "froze" an LSD molecule and took x-ray crystallography images to see what the drug looks like in its active state when attached to a serotonin receptor of a brain cell. They discovered that when the LSD molecule latches on, part of the receptor folds over it like a lid, keeping the molecule in place. (Interestingly, serotonin receptors don't interact with actual serotonin the same way.)


The lid is the orange bar in the center here:

An acid trip can last up to 12 hours, but when it eventually ends, it's because the lid moves around and the molecule pops off the receptor, the authors say, or because the brain cells suck in the entire receptor where it's disassembled for recycling. The study was partially funded by National Institute of Mental Health.

This is thought to be the first time anyone has successfully crystallized LSD attached to a brain receptor and x-rayed it. Congratulations, UNC, you're peerless in the field of altered states. But there's a legitimate reason they looked into it: There's renewed medical interest in using LSD as a treatment for conditions like cluster headaches, substance abuse, and anxiety from terminal illness. Research like this could help experts determine why the drug causes such a dramatic reaction in the brain and figuring out its structure could help drug developers design better psychiatric medications with fewer side effects.

Lead author Bryan Roth, a pharmacologist at the UNC School of Medicine, used to be a psychiatrist specializing in schizophrenia and some of his patients reported that their first schizophrenic break—that is, their first episode of acute psychosis—happened while they were on LSD. "They were never the same again," Roth said in a release. "Although this is rare, it has been reported. People also report flashbacks and LSD is an extremely potent drug. So for those reasons, along with its potential as part of therapeutic treatment, LSD is scientifically interesting."

But sad trombone, he doesn't recommend taking it. (Sorry, microdosing bankers and tech bros.) "We do not advocate using LSD; it is potentially very dangerous," Roth said. "But it could have potential medicinal uses, some of which were reported in the medical literature decades ago. Now that we've solved the structure of LSD bound to a receptor, we are learning what makes it so potent."

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