Tripping into an artificial experiment

Photo by Flickr user One-Speed Photography. Click for sourceThe NeuroKüz blog covers a new study in which research participants were asked to take the hallucinogenic drug psilocybin before being asked to take part in a pretend brain scan in a fake fMRI machine.

If the situation seems a little odd, a bit trippy even, it’s actually more common than you think as almost all functioning brain scanning centres now have fake brain scanners that are used to test out experiments before running them ‘live’.

Brain scanning is a very expensive business and an hour of scanning time can easily cost ¬£500, so it wasn’t long before someone worked out that building a fake ‘dry run’ scanner was actually very economical.

Some of the time, experiments need to be tested out to see if they’re practically possible in the cramped space of the scanner and with the restrictions on equipment that are necessitated by having to avoid material that would be affected by the powerful MRI magnet.

Other times, its more a concern about the psychological well-being of the participants and how well they’d tolerate the conditions.

In this case, no-one had ever tried giving participants psilocybin and then asking them to do experiments while lying down in the restricted ‘tube’ of an fMRI machine, particularly as they hear the loud metallic scanning noises.

It could be a recipe for an unpleasant experience, so the researchers, who plan to do future fMRI research with the drug, tested nine people who stayed inside the mock scanner for 25 minutes after being injected with the substance.

As it turned out, no-one had a bad trip:

During the initial onset, some subjects described ‘quite strong’ drug effects. Synaesthesia was described by one subject (sounds influencing visual percepts) and this was also evident in other subjects’ 5-D ASC [5-Dimensions of Altered States of Consciousness questionnaire] ratings. Several subjects reported an altered sense of time (also seen in 5-D ASC ratings). There were no indications of distress during the acute experience and all subjects reported having found it interesting and insightful.

This doesn’t mean that the researchers will not need to worry about people feeling uncomfortable in future studies, although it does show that fMRI research on psilocybin can be done while participants remain relaxed and able to take part in the research.

Link to NeuroKüz on psilocybin and fake fMRI (via Thoughtful Animal).
Link to PubMed entry for study.

One Comment

  1. Natalie
    Posted July 7, 2010 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    We already do that here at Duke! For anyone to get into our subject pool, they must undergo a 1 hour screening including spending time in an extremely realistic mock scanner. It is much better to pay someone $20 for the 1 hour session than have them ruin a $700 US brain scan.


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