The wellness benefits of microdosing could just be a placebo effect
In 2018, volunteers with an interest in microdosing – regularly taking small amounts of psychedelic drugs such as LSD – began to participate in an unusual experiment. For four weeks, researchers at Imperial College London asked them to swap some of their drugs for empty capsules – placebos – so that when they took them, they wouldn’t know whether they were microdosing or not. They then completed online surveys and cognitive tasks at regular intervals, aimed at assessing their mental well-being and cognitive abilities. The idea: explore if microdosing produces the benefits for mood and brain function that some people claim.
In a paper published in the journal eLife, the researchers revealed their findings. After the month-long testing period, they found that all psychological results had improved since the start of the experiment for people in the microdosing group, including “in the areas of well-being, mindfulness, life satisfaction and paranoia ”. However, the same was true for the placebo group, with no significant difference between the two.
“So in a way, microdosing increased a lot of these psychological variables,” says Balazs Szigeti, associate researcher at Imperial College London Center of Psychedelic Research and lead author of the study. “But it was the same with placebos for four weeks.”
The researchers conclude that the anecdotal benefits of microdosing can therefore be explained by the placebo effect. That’s not to say that the people who claim to feel the benefits of microdosing are wrong, Szigeti says – on the contrary, the study suggests they do experience those benefits – but that these results may not be the result of the microdosing. pharmacological effect of the drug, but rather because of their psychological expectations.
People who microdose take very small amounts of psychedelic drugs such as LSD or psilocybin (found in magic mushrooms) – usually about a tenth of the amount needed for a full psychedelic experience. Some people claim that microdosing has mood-enhancing effects, while others claim cognitive benefits or say it makes them feel more creative or efficient at work. Others microdose in an attempt to self-medicate conditions such as depression. But there is very little scientific evidence on the effects of microdosing and it is difficult to conduct controlled trials (especially due to the illegal nature of these drugs in many countries).
The Imperial team turned to volunteers who planned to microdose independently and asked them to complete surveys and cognitive tasks at specific times in their microdosing schedule. The volunteers never came to the lab and the researchers did not provide the drugs. In order to “self-blind” so that they would not know if they were taking a microdose or a placebo, the volunteers were asked to put their microdoses in opaque capsules, then to put a week of capsules in an envelope. with a QR code. They then mixed them together so that some of the envelopes contained microdoses and others contained placebos. Some people would take only microdoses for four weeks, others only placebos, and some half of half. After the study, the QR codes acted as a key to determining which were which.
While the study also measured the effects a few hours after taking a microdose, and on a weekly basis, it was the monthly cumulative effect that showed the most interesting results. One week after the end of the dosing period, participants were asked to report psychological measures related to well-being, mindfulness, life satisfaction, and paranoia. For the microdosing group and the placebo group, these showed an overall improvement over a baseline taken before the start of the study, with no significant difference between the two groups. Overall, cognitive measures – which are less subjective – showed no significant improvement for either group. “So people are cognitively performing at the same level before and after this four week long treatment period,” Szigeti says.