By Emma Young
“Microdosing” psychedelic drugs involves regularly taking amounts so tiny that they don’t impair a person’s normal functioning, but — it’s claimed — subtly enhance wellbeing, concentration and creativity. In May, for example, the Digest reported on a study that found hints of reduced stress and increased emotional intensity among people who microdosed LSD and psilocybin, from ‘magic’ mushrooms.
However, we also stressed that there has been little research into the technique — and now a review of the field published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology concludes that while the popularity of microdosing has exploded over the past eight years, knowledge about what it actually does remains patchy and anecdotal. In fact, there are still far more questions about the technique than answers, write Kim Kuypers at Maastricht University, and her colleagues.
In their paper, the team lays out what has been established so far — and also the key unknowns. First: what is a microdose, anyway? When it comes to LSD or the active ingredients from magic mushrooms, there is no agreed scientific consensus, though a microdose is often defined as approximately one-tenth to one-twentieth of a recreational dose. However, since there’s significant variability in the level of psilocybin in a magic mushroom, microdosing by weight of dried mushroom could lead to a huge variation in actual doses taken each time.
Most studies to date have also generally lumped together people who self-identify as microdosers into a single group. But there’s a lot of variation in how microdosers schedule their consumption. In a 2011 book that had a huge influence on the take-up of the technique, James Fadiman suggested two consecutive days of dosing followed by two non-dosing days. However, some people take small doses every weekday, and one recent survey of microdosers found that half had come up with their own schedule.
Variations in the actual doses that are consumed, and how often they are taken, make it hard to draw conclusions from studies that explore effects reported by microdosers, the team note. Improvements in energy, mood, cognition, concentration, stress management, creativity, spiritual awareness and productivity have all been frequently reported in surveys of microdosers. However, “all of these reports are confounded by the lack of certainty relating to the actual dose used, or indeed the provenance of the active ingredient, and the absence of placebo conditions,” Kuypers and her colleagues write. (The study published in May that found impacts on stress and emotional intensity suffered from all these drawbacks.) Anecdotal reports may not play out in controlled trials: for example, the team notes that to date, no placebo-controlled study has found statistically significant effects of microdosing on creativity.
Finally, though single active doses of drugs like psilocybin are considered to be relatively safe, it’s still unclear whether repeated small doses carry additional risks. For instance, psilocin (the active metabolite of psilocybin) binds to a serotonin receptor that plays a role in heart function, and some drugs that act on this receptor, including the diet medication Phen/Fen, were pulled from the market after heart complications and fatalities. Future work should test whether multiple microdoses of psilocin have negative effects on the heart, the authors write.
Essential safety-testing aside, much more gold-standard, placebo-controlled research into the effects of microdosing is required, the team argues, as well as a better understanding of the molecular mechanisms behind any effects. For now, Kuypers says, “there is a lack of scientific proof that microdosing is indeed effective”.