Science of microdosing psychedelics remains patchy and anecdotal

Summary: While many people report microdosing is beneficial to their mental wellbeing, researchers say more research needs to be conducted to evaluate the psychological and health implications of taking low-dose psychedelics.

Source: Imperial College London

The practice of taking small, regular doses of psychedelic drugs to enhance mood, creativity, or productivity lacks robust scientific evidence, say scientists.

The process, called microdosing, has been lauded by some, with high profile proponents in Silicon Valley. But to date, scientific evidence to support or even fully explore claims of the benefits and safety has been lacking.

Now, an international group of researchers, led by Imperial College London and Maastricht University, has approached the issue in a wide-ranging review paper, published today in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, to tackle some of the key questions – including what is microdosing? Is it safe? Is it legal? And are the claims of benefits from taking small amounts of psychedelics even plausible?

According to the researchers, their review aims to present evidence around several themes of microdosing psychedelics, such as LSD or psilocybin (magic mushrooms), including discussions of concerns around impacts on cardiovascular health, as well as to providing a framework for future research in the area.

“Despite so much interest in the subject, we still don’t have any agreed scientific consensus on what microdosing is – like what constitutes a ‘micro’ dose, how often someone would take it, and even if there may be potential health effects” said Professor David Nutt, Edmond J Safra Chair in Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London and senior author of the review.

Professor Nutt and the team define microdosing as the practice of taking repeated, low doses of psychedelic substance – at doses that do not impair a person’s ‘normal’ functioning (a fraction of ‘recreational dose’) – in order to improve well-being and enhance cognitive or emotional processes.

However, in practice, the frequency may vary widely – from a few consecutive days to weekdays – as may strength and potency of substances depending on what it is and where it’s from.

The review explains that while most reports on microdosing to date are anecdotal and have focused on positive experiences, future research should be expanded to focus on the potential risks.

Focusing on psilocybin – the active compound in magic mushrooms – as one of the two most commonly used psychedelic substances (alongside LSD), and being much further along the clinical pipeline to potential approval as a treatment, the team presents the available evidence on several aspects of microdosing.

Chief among the issues raised is the lack of controlled scientific studies, the standard measure in medical science – where the effect of a treatment is measured in those taking it against a control or placebo group (who do not take the compound). The authors also cite a lack of certainty around the doses used in previous trials, as well as where the substances came from, and their potency.

Regarding safety, they claim evidence for long-term, repeated dosing of psilocybin is lacking in humans and animals, and that there is some evidence to highlight cardiovascular risks.

This shows a psychedelic lotus

However, in practice, frequency may vary widely – from a few consecutive days, to weekdays – as may strength and potency of substances depending on what it is and where it’s from. The image is in the public domain.

Similarly, the authors describe how data on the behavioral effects of microdosing, such as increased concentration or creativity, remain patchy. Early-stage research has shown psilocybin targets specific receptors in the brain which bind to serotonin – a chemical messenger in the brain associated with feelings of happiness, as well as learning and memory. They speculate that these changes to the activity of networks of brain cells may explain some of the reported therapeutic benefits of microdosing, such as improvement in mood, memory or productivity.

Beyond the scientific issues, the legality and regulation of substances remains a significant barrier, say the researchers. Despite the renaissance in the science of psychedelic research, the drugs in the field – chiefly psilocybin, LSD and DMT – remain Schedule 1 Drugs under the UN Convention and Class A under the Misuse of Drugs Act in the UK. In the UK, this currently means only researchers with a license from the Home Office are able to obtain and test substances, and anyone obtaining substances for microdosing without a license could face prosecution.

The team hopes that the evidence laid out in their review will go some way to focus the attention of the research community in order to answer some of the major remaining questions in the field. They write “rigorous, placebo-controlled clinical studies need to be conducted with low doses of [psilocybin] to determine whether there is any evidence for the claims of microdosers”.

Dr. Kim Kuypers, from Maastricht University and first author of the review, said: “This review is timely as a lot of hope is generated by positive media reports about alleged effects of microdosing. Patients might feel attracted by those reports to try it but may actually not helped by it. We try to emphasize the lack of scientific proof that microdosing is indeed effective in combatting certain symptoms and hope that this will give impetus to new lines of research in this area.”

Professor Nutt added: “Researchers working in the area of psychedelics regularly receive requests from the media asking about microdosing. We hope that this critique will provide answers to all these questions in future as well as providing a framework for research.”

About this neuroscience research article

Source:
Imperial College London
Media Contacts:
Ryan O’Hare – Imperial College London
Image Source:
The image is in the public domain.

Original Research: Open access
“Microdosing psychedelics: More questions than answers? An overview and suggestions for future research”. Kim PC Kuypers, Livia Ng, David Erritzoe, Gitte M Knudsen, Charles D Nichols, David E Nichols, Anaïs Soula, David Nutt.
Journal of Psychopharmacology. doi:10.1177/0269881119857204

Abstract

Microdosing psychedelics: More questions than answers? An overview and suggestions for future research

Background:
In the past few years, the issue of ‘microdosing’ psychedelics has been openly discussed in the public arena where claims have been made about their positive effect on mood state and cognitive processes such as concentration. However, there are very few scientific studies that have specifically addressed this issue, and there is no agreed scientific consensus on what microdosing is.

Aim:
This critique paper is designed to address questions that need to be answered by future scientific studies and to offer guidelines for these studies.

Approach:
Owing to its proximity for a possible approval in clinical use and short-lasting pharmacokinetics, our focus is predominantly on psilocybin. Psilocybin is allegedly, next to lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), one of the two most frequently used psychedelics to microdose. Where relevant and available, data for other psychedelic drugs are also mentioned.

Conclusion:
It is concluded that while most anecdotal reports focus on the positive experiences with microdosing, future research should also focus on potential risks of (multiple) administrations of a psychedelic in low doses. To that end, (pre)clinical studies including biological (e.g. heart rate, receptor turnover and occupancy) as well as cognitive (e.g. memory, attention) parameters have to be conducted and will shed light on the potential negative consequences microdosing could have.

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