Does microdosing LSD make you happier and smarter? Many believe so, but a new placebo-controlled study doesn’t broadly support the idea. The researchers found no significant evidence that microdosing changed participants’ emotional or cognitive functions over the study period—although their findings hint at other potential short-term benefits.
The hotly debated practice of microdosing involves, as the name suggests, taking very small doses of psychedelics—not to trip, but to experience subtler effects claimed to boost mood, energy or brain function. (There are also microdosers who use drugs including cannabis and opioids.)
The data on microdosing psychedelics are largely inconclusive, even if people anecdotally report benefits including relief from symptoms of depression, migraines or traumatic brain injuries, to name just a few. Current research seeks to establish evidence for or against these reported effects.
Overall, the researchers found no lasting effects of microdosing on mood, cognition or emotion.
The new study, published in the journal Addiction Biology, was conducted by a team of researchers from the Universities of Chicago and California at Los Angeles. They divided 56 adult participants into three groups. One group received 26 microgram doses of LSD, and a second group 13 microgram doses (a normal dose of LSD might be roughly 100 micrograms). The third group received a placebo. The study was double-blinded, so neither the participants nor the people giving them their doses knew what they were taking.
Each participant attended four five-hour sessions, spaced a few days apart, where they received either LSD or the placebo. They then returned for a follow-up session, with no drugs administered, where they were evaluated.
Participants were asked to follow some general rules during the study, including not eating the night before, or the morning of, the sessions where they recieved LSD or placebo. They were asked to remain abstinent from other drugs, and were drug-tested on each visit.
During the “drug” sessions, participants were placed in a “comfortable room with movies and reading materials.” In the first and final sessions, participants were given cognitive and emotional exams two-and-a-half hours after taking their dose. They also completed another test at the end of the session describing how their dose felt.
At the final, follow-up session, the participants completed these same tests, and were also tested for depression, anxiety and stress symptoms.
Depression, anxiety and stress scores decreased for all three groups, the results showed, while positive and negative mood scores remained the same for all groups. The researchers did find that microdosing had stimulant-like effects, with participants who received LSD experiencing feelings of “vigor.” Microdosing also had a small effect in making participants less likely to recognize facial expressions of fear or to feel “rejection.”
Overall, the researchers found no lasting effects of microdosing on mood, cognition or emotion after participants finished the study.
“We can look at the claims made by those who use the drug regularly, and try to select outcome measures that will detect the beneficial effects under controlled conditions.”
Lead researcher Dr. Harriet de Wit told Filter that the study was limited for two main reasons: The participants overall were a healthy group, and the study period was fairly short. On the first point, it’s possible, for example, that researchers would have been able to record effects on mental health if the participants were already experiencing more severe symptoms.
To the second point, it’s also possible that if researchers had followed up over a longer period—one month after the study, say—they would have found more significant effects. De Wit acknowledged that her team may have used the wrong tests to catch any effects of microdosing, and that future research should examine and test for other measures. It’s also possible that selecting different LSD dosages might produce different results.
Another general problem with this kind of research is something called the “expectancy effect.” This happens when a study participant realizes they are taking a certain drug, and that knowledge then changes their perception of how they think or behave on it. (In the new study, roughly half of the participants who received 26 micrograms of LSD correctly identified they had taken the drug, when asked on the first occasion.) It’s a well known difficulty in studying psychedelics.
“We may have to rethink the whole concept of placebo control when we’re dealing with psychedelics.”
Dr. Balázs Szigeti, a researcher at Imperial College London who was not involved in the new study, was the lead author on another study on LSD microdosing that began in 2018. Those researchers found that both of two groups who took either a microdose or placebo improved on cognitive and emotional outcomes, but at the same levels. They also found that over 70 percent of participants correctly “guessed” they had taken a microdose.
“It’s hard to do a true placebo-controlled study with microdosing where participants genuinely don’t know what they took,” Szigeti told Filter, calling this effect “blind breaking.” “We may have to rethink the whole concept of placebo control when we’re dealing with psychedelics.”
And while the researchers controlled many factors that could influence the outcome, it’s also an inherent weakness of new study that people don’t usually microdose in a lab setting, as they did here. Future research on microdosing will need to reflect the many different ways people microdose, and understand how these impact their experiences.
“To do this, we can look at the claims made by those who use the drug regularly, and try to select outcome measures that will detect the beneficial effects, under controlled conditions,” de Wit said.
Szigeti agreed, but said his own microdose study had the opposite problem—participants tested themselves at home and submitted data to researchers remotely.
“The problem there was we couldn’t control many factors,” he said. “Each study has its pros and cons, but they point towards the same conclusion. That being said, I think drawing a scientific conclusion is too early at this point, we need more studies with different strengths and weaknesses to understand microdosing better.”
Photograph via FreeIMG.