Microdosing benefits could be largely from placebo, experimental study suggests

Psilocybin mushrooms in a grow room at the Procare farm in Hazerswoude, central Holland.

Psilocybin mushrooms in a grow room at the Procare farm in Hazerswoude, central Holland.
Photo: Peter dejong (AP)

He sometimes exaggerated The benefits of microdosing – the regular use of small amounts of psychedelic drugs like lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) – could be overstated, new research from this week suggests. The study found that people who microdosed did experience psychological benefits, including an increased sense of well-being, but that these benefits were not substantially different from how others felt when they took a placebo instead. Findings from the experimental study indicate that at least some of the positive aspects of microdosing can be attributed to the placebo effect, but the study has its own caveats.

Psychedelic drug treatment has emerged as a promising approach to improving people’s mental health in recent years. Some studies have suggested that medications such as LSD and psilocybin, the main ingredient in magic mushrooms, can help treat anxiety and depression, particularly when combined with therapy. Other research has found evidence of positive changes in the brain cells of animals or people when exposed to psychedelics, further reinforcing the case for a real biological benefit. One method of using these medications is microdosing, which is when people take much smaller doses than those used recreationally, on a regular schedule.

However, much of the evidence for the benefits of microdosing has been based on real-world observations or anecdotal experiences, which has its limitations. Some people’s self-reported symptoms while taking a drug will improve, for example, even if the drug does not treated the underlying condition causing those symptoms. A clear way to overcome the limitations of anecdotal evidence is through a placebo-controlled study, but these studies are generally expensive and require a lot of time and resources to carry out. That’s especially true for microdose studies, as these drugs are still illegal in many countries, and scientists have to overcome hurdles to use them in research.

The authors behind this new study, published On eLife Tuesday, he decided to take a unique approach to conducting his placebo-controlled study. They enlisted the help of people who were already microdosing regularly and then essentially helped them run the experiment on their own.

These citizen-scientists were instructed on how to make the experiment placebo controlled, so that they would not know whether they were taking a placebo or the actual drug (mostly LSD, but some also took psilocybin). This included placing the drug, which was in powder form, into opaque gel capsules, then placing these capsules and the placebo capsules into sachets containing a four-dose, one-week supply. Some sachets would contain nothing but placebo, others contained a combination of both placebo and drug.

All the envelopes had a QR code attached that would allow the researchers to know the content of each envelope and the specific order of the pills taken that week, but not the volunteers. Some of the study subjects were randomly assigned to microdose two of the four weeks and received placebo for the other two weeks, and some received the placebo all the time. During the study, all volunteers regularly completed surveys on their ongoing psychological state.

In all, 191 people completed the experiment, making it the largest placebo-controlled study of its kind, according to the authors. The microdosing volunteers reported psychological improvements from their baseline, including reduced anxiety and a greater sense of well-being, but so did the people taking placebo, and overall there were no significant differences between the three groups.

“The findings suggest that the anecdotal benefits of microdosing may be explained by the placebo effect,” the authors wrote.

There are some important caveats about these findings. On the one hand, the study found a small but statistically significant difference in certain outcomes when comparing the placebo group with the microdose group; These included improvements in mood, energy, and creativity. But the researchers argue that there is also a mundane explanation for that. About 72% of the time, better than chance, the volunteers were able to accurately guess whether they were taking a placebo or a drug. Therefore, it is possible that their expectations of feeling better were increased when they correctly suspected that they had taken the drug rather than placebo, meaning that their blinding was not entirely foolproof.

The study was also unable to control for variables such as purity or the actual dose of the microdose, as it was based on the typical medications that the volunteers were already using (on average, users reported taking 13 micrograms).grams of LSD per dose, but the authors were unable to test how much of the active ingredient people were taking.) And while they tried to make sure people followed the instructions they were given, the very nature of the study meant they had less control over whether everything was being followed correctly. Regarding the ethics of this research, the authors said that they only contacted self-identified microdosers and did not collect any other personally identifiable information from them other than their email (the study was approved by an external committee).

It’s also worth noting that psychedelic drugs are being studied and taken for mental health in different ways, and microdosing is just one approach. Some researchers have argued that it is the intensive experience of taking psychedelics (either in microdoses or relatively high macrodoses), coupled with guided therapy, that really provides the clearest benefits to people, for example. In 2019, the drug ketamine was adapted in an FDA-approved treatment for depression. This is taken in smaller doses than when taken recreationally and under medical supervision, but it can also be a higher dose than what people would take on their own during microdosing.

Importantly, the authors also note that the study volunteers were generally healthy, with only 7% having a current mental health diagnosis. Therefore, they do not rule out the possibility that microdosing may still be helpful for people experiencing Mental illness.

Of course, no study should be considered the last word on any topic, especially when it is based on an experimental approach. Still, the authors hope that their unique study design can be used in the future for other complicated areas of research where it is difficult to include a placebo control. An immediate benefit could be the cost, as this study only required about 1% of the funds normally used to conduct a clinical trial. Other possible applications of this approach include studying CBD, nootropics, and nutrition, they wrote.


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