Effect of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) on reinforcement learning in humans


The non-selective serotonin 2A (5-HT 2A ) receptor agonist lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) holds promise as a treatment for some psychiatric disorders. Psychedelic drugs such as LSD have been suggested to have therapeutic actions through their effects on learning. The behavioural effects of LSD in humans, however, remain largely unexplored. Here we examined how LSD affects probabilistic reversal learning in healthy humans. Healthy volunteers received intravenous LSD (75μg in 10 mL saline) or placebo (10mL saline) in a within-subjects design and completed a probabilistic reversal learning task. Participants had to learn through trial and error which of three stimuli was rewarded most of the time, and these contingencies switched in a reversal phase. Computational models of reinforcement learning were fitted to the behavioural data to assess how LSD affected the updating (“learning rates”) and deployment (“reinforcement sensitivity”) of value representations during choice, as well as “stimulus stickiness”, which assays choice repetition irrespective of reinforcement history. Conventional measures assessing sensitivity to immediate feedback (“win-stay” and “lose-shift” probabilities) were unaffected, whereas LSD increased the impact of the strength of initial learning on perseveration. Computational modelling revealed that the most pronounced effect of LSD was enhancement of the reward learning rate. The punishment learning rate was also elevated. Stimulus stickiness was decreased by LSD, reflecting heightened exploratory behaviour, while reinforcement sensitivity was unaffected. Increased reinforcement learning rates suggest LSD induced a state of heightened plasticity. These results indicate a potential mechanism through which revision of maladaptive associations could occur in the clinical application of LSD. Significance statement The psychedelic (“mind-manifesting”) drug LSD holds promise for the treatment of some psychiatric disorders. Theories have postulated its therapeutic potential centres on enhancing learning and flexible thinking. Here we provide substantiating empirical evidence by examining the computations underlying behaviour as healthy volunteers learned through trial and error under LSD. Viewing choice as based on representations of an action’s value, LSD increased the speed at which value was updated following feedback, which was more pronounced following reward than punishment. Behaviour was also more exploratory under LSD, irrespective of the outcome of actions. These results indicate that LSD impacted a fundamental belief-updating process inherent in the brain which can be leveraged to revise maladaptive associations characteristic of a range of mental disorders.