LSD and psilocybin flatten the brain’s energy landscape: insights from receptor-informed network control theory


Psychedelics like lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and psilocybin offer a powerful window into the function of the human brain and mind, by temporarily altering subjective experience through their neurochemical effects. A recent model postulates that serotonin 2a (5-HT2a) receptor agonism allows the brain to explore its dynamic landscape more readily, as reflected by more diverse (entropic) brain activity. We postulate that this increase in entropy may arise in part from a flattening of the brain’s control energy landscape, which can be observed using network control theory to quantify the energy required to transition between recurrent brain states measured using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in individuals under LSD, psilocybin, and placebo conditions. We show that LSD and psilocybin reduce the amount of control energy required for brain state transitions, and, furthermore, that, across individuals, LSD’s reduction in control energy correlates with more frequent state transitions and increased entropy of brain state dynamics. Through network control analysis that incorporates the spatial distribution of 5-HT2a receptors from publicly available (non-drug) positron emission tomography (PET) maps, we demonstrate the specific role of this receptor in reducing control energy. Our findings provide evidence that 5-HT2a receptor agonist compounds allow for more facile state transitions and more temporally diverse brain activity. More broadly, by combining receptor-informed network control theory with pharmacological modulation, our work highlights the potential of this approach in studying the impacts of targeted neuropharmacological manipulation on brain activity dynamics. Significance Statement We present a multi-modal framework for quantifying the effects of two psychedelic drugs (LSD and psilocybin) on brain dynamics by combining functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), diffusion MRI (dMRI), positron emission tomography (PET) and network control theory. Our findings provide evidence that psychedelics flatten the brain’s control energy landscape, allowing for more facile state transitions and more temporally diverse brain activity. We also demonstrate that the spatial distribution of serotonin 2a receptors - the main target of LSD and psilocybin - is optimized for generating these effects. This approach could be used to understand how drugs act on different receptors in the brain to influence brain activity dynamics.