In the past few years, psychologists and neuroscientists have conducted a large number of studies into the effects of psychedelic drugs. Some have sought to betterunderstand the effects of the drugs in the brain, while others are investigating the potential for substances like psilocybin and LSD to treat depression and other mental health conditions.
This work obviously require tactful communication on the part of researchers: after all, they don’t want to alienate a public who may be at best ambivalent about the use of currently illegal drugs in research or mental health settings. Now a recent paper in Public Understanding of Science highlights one thing researchers shouldn’t do: admit to using psychedelic substances themselves. The team finds that researchers who make such a disclosure may be seen by the public as having less integrity.
An increasingly large body of work suggests that many illicit psychoactive drugs could be useful as treatments for certain mental health problems. Studies have found, for instance, that the psychedelics psilocybin (from magic mushrooms) and LSD can reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, while MDMA may be useful in treating PTSD.
It’s a different story for a practice known as “microdosing”, however. This involves taking a small quantity of a psychedelic substance — normally too little to produce any perceptible effects — repeatedly over a period of time (every few days for several weeks, say). And as we reported in 2019, although results from some surveys or poorly-controlled trials suggest that microdosing can improve people’s mood or certain aspects of cognition, more rigorous placebo-controlled trials have failed to find any such effects.
A new study in Scientific Reports could explain why. The team, led by Laura Kartner from Imperial College London, finds that people who plan on microdosing do go on to experience a boost to wellbeing and a reduction in anxiety and depression. But the level of improvement depends on how much they expect to improve in the first place, suggesting that any effects on wellbeing may be the result of a strong placebo response.
If I had to choose between giving up alcohol or coffee, it would have to be alcohol. I just love coffee too much… But do I, really? Or do I just want it, which is different?
Despite being the most widely used psychoactive drug in the world, there’s ongoing debate about just how addictive caffeine is. It does share some of the criteria for dependence: regular users who skip their morning cup will often report withdrawal symptoms, such as headaches, for example. “Caffeine use disorder” is even being discussed for potential inclusion in the next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. But is it really addictive in the same fundamental way as a harder drug like cocaine?
A new paper published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology suggests that it is. Nicolas Koranyi at the University of Jena, Germany, and colleagues found that heavy coffee drinkers want coffee a lot more than they like it. The implication is that they drink it mostly or entirely to feed their addiction, rather than for pleasure.
Recent therapeutic trials of “classical” psychedelic drugs, such as psilocybin (from magic mushrooms) or LSD, have reported benefits to wellbeing, depression and anxiety. These effects seem to be linked to a sense of “ego dissolution” — a dissolving of the subjective boundaries between the self and the wider world. However, the neurochemistry behind this effect has been unclear. Now a new paper, published in Neuropsychopharmacology, suggests that changes in brain levels of the neurotransmitter glutamate are key to understanding reports of ego dissolution — and perhaps the therapeutic effects of psychedelics.
Now new research from Charles Dorison and colleagues at Harvard University, published in PNAS, has looked at the role of negative emotions in addiction. Though some theories say negative mood in general is associated with problematic substance use, the study suggests that, for tobacco at least, it’s sadness per se that is related to addiction.
“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.
Poor sleepers may be hoping that with the gradual liberalisation of marijuana laws around the world, a new drug to help them sleep will soon become legally available. Bad news, then, from a new diary study, published in Health Psychology, of people who take cannabis as a sleep aid. While the drug seemed to improve some aspects of sleep, it also led people to feel more tired the next day.
What if you could take a psychedelic drug regularly in such tiny quantities that the immediate effects were not discernible, yet over time it led to a range of psychological benefits, especially enhanced focus and heightened creativity? That’s the principle behind “microdosing” – a controversial technique that’s exploded in popularity ever since the publication of a 2011 book The Psychedelic Explorers Guide and a 2015 Rolling Stone article titled How LSD Microdosing Became The Hot New Business Trip. Large online communities of microdosing enthusiasts have since emerged on sites like Reddit, where dosing tips are shared and the supposed manifold benefits of the practice are espoused.
However, actual scientific investigations into the effects of microdosing can be counted on one hand. Earlier this year, PLOS One published one of the few systematic investigations ever conducted into the practice, by Vince Polito and Richard Stevenson at Macquarie University. Though exploratory and tentative due to “legal and bureaucratic” obstacles (meaning there was no placebo control or randomisation in this research), the results suggest that microdosing can be beneficial, although not in the ways that users most expect, and not necessarily for everyone.
Now a new study sheds some light into what’s going in the brain when people smoke cannabis – and it turns out that the effects can be quite different depending on the specific strain of the drug. The research, published recently in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, suggests that cannabis disrupts particular brain networks – but some strains can buffer against this disruption.
First-hand accounts of what it is like to come close to death often contain the same recurring themes, such as the sense of leaving the body, a review of one’s life, tunnelled vision and a magical sense of reality. Mystics, optimists and people of religious faith interpret this as evidence of an after life. Sceptically minded neuroscientists and psychologists think there may be a more terrestrial neurochemical explanation – that the profound and magical near death experience is caused by the natural release of brain chemicals at or near the end of life.
Supporting this, observers have noted the striking similarities between first-hand accounts of near-death experiences and the psychedelic experiences described by people who have taken mind-altering drugs.
“I had the feeling of floating, still tied to the remains of my heavy body, but floating nonetheless. I rocked and moved, at times as if on a liquid, undulating surface, at other times rising upwards, like a helium-filled flat container.” Excerpt from Amazing First-time Experience in the K-hole, published by Phaeton at the Erowid Experience vaults.
Perhaps, near death, the brain naturally releases the same psychoactive substances as used by drug takers, or substances that act on the same brain receptors as the drugs. It’s also notable that psychedelic drugs have been taken by the shamans of traditional far-flung cultures through history as a way to, as they see it, visit the after world or speak to the dead.
To date, however, much of the evidence comparing near death experiences and psychedelic trips has been anecdotal or it’s been based on questionnaire measures that arguably struggle to capture the complexity of these life-changing experiences. Pursuing this line of enquiry with a new approach, an international team of researchers led by Charlotte Martial at the University Hospital of Liège has conducted a deep lexical analysis, comparing 625 written narrative accounts of near death experiences with more than 15,000 written narrative accounts of experiences taking psychoactive drugs (sourced from the Erowid Experience vaults), including 165 different substances in 10 drug classes.