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People are microdosing psychedelics for their reported benefits, but scientists want more evidence
by Dessy Pavlova · January 12, 2023
Testimonial evidence of improved mood and cognition as a result of microdosing psychedelics has captured the attention not only of the public and mainstream media, but of scientists, academics, activists, and lawmakers across the country. Psychedelics have even been declared a “breakthrough therapy” by the F.D.A. As a 2021 study published in Nature states, “The use of psychedelic substances at sub-sensorium ‘microdoses’, has gained popular academic interest for reported positive effects on wellness and cognition.” But experts say there still needs to be more evidence collected before any conclusions can be made about the actual efficacy of microdosing psychedelic substances.
It is hard to determine how many people are microdosing in the U.S., but if a reddit group dedicated to microdosing discussion’ growth from around 30,000 subscribers in 2018 to nearly 200,000 in 2022 is any indication, the trend is on the uptick. Aside from motives like sheer curiosity or a desire for heightened consciousness or spirituality, more people are microdosing for mental health purposes. Dealing with depression and other conditions can be an exhausting, years-long battle, and many sufferers struggle to find the right combination of therapy and medication to cope with their symptoms. The notion of treating mental health issues by taking small enough doses of substances like psilocybin, LSD, ayahuasca, and mescaline so as not to feel their more potent hallucinatory effects is an attractive idea for many people suffering from mental illness and looking for new treatments. But in the urgency to find alternatives, people are choosing to self-medicate before the science of psychedelics and mental health has caught up. Scientists in the field urge caution about the potential adverse effects of microdosing, and are calling for more studies.
Studies on the effects of psychedelics on mental health have, so far, focused mostly on ‘macrodosing,’ or taking a larger amount of a specified drug, in controlled environments, which have shown some promising results. Microdosing, on the other hand, is more difficult to study, since it is usually done at home, intermittently, and over long periods of time. Psychedelics remain illegal, so researchers can’t supply them to test subjects for use outside of a laboratory setting. It is also a challenge to determine exact data about the effective dosage of a particular substance, since there is no standardized dose available at pharmacies and different subjects may be taking different amounts.
Because of this lack of research, little is known about the long-term risks of microdosing, and those who have undertaken a microdosing regimen are essentially subjects in big, uncontrolled experiments.
Legal restrictions on psychedelics need to loosen if studies are to accelerate, and larger randomized studies are necessary for scientists to make any firm conclusions about microdosing. Usually, new medication candidates go through trials to determine their safety in humans; no microdose has ever gone even through such a trial. The first such trial is soon to begin, however, when Diamond Therapeutics will conduct a trial to determine the effective microdose for psilocybin.
A number of smaller studies in 2020 found that microdosing LSD or psilocybin “yields subtle positive changes to emotions and to thought processes involved in problem-solving.” Experts caution, however, that issues like bias and the placebo effect may be a problem when considering testimonial evidence collected by users who report positively on their experiences. One recent test revealed this placebo effect, with those taking the microdose and those taking the placebo reporting the same improvement in mental health and well-being.
Brain imaging reveals another clue, as a recent fMRI scan of people who microdosed LSD showed they had increased connectivity in their amygdala and were in a better mood subjectively than those who took a placebo before the same scan. This suggests there is definitely activity in the brain similar to that which occurs during full doses of psychedelics. This activity may explain the testimony of the growing number of people who feel microdosing has changed their lives for the better.
Have you tried microdosing with any significant results?