Wednesday, March 22, 2023
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Psychedelic Placebo?

Science Begins to Examine Psilocybin Microdosing


Taking magic mushrooms used to be a favorite pastime for hippies and dropouts looking to party on exotic drugs. But as we learn more about the beneficial effects of psilocybin, professionals and health advocates are beginning to experiment with it as well.

One of the most popular ways for modern users to access the drug is through a practice known as “microdosing,” in which a very small dose of psilocybin mushrooms is ingested—less than the amount needed to produce inebriating effects—to allow the health benefits to be experienced without the psychedelic trip.

But magic mushrooms are still federally illegal in the U.S., though some states are beginning to end the prohibition, and a lack of research into the practice means that microdosing’s legitimacy as a treatment for mental health is still questioned.

What Is Microdosing?

Microdosing is commonly practiced with mushrooms and other psychedelic drugs, like LSD, MDMA and even THC. Users take only a fraction of what is considered a regular dose of a drug, leading to effects that only slightly break the awareness threshold or not at all. Adherents of microdosing swear that the practice improves creativity, energy, mood and neuroplasticity.

It has oddly become most popular (at least outwardly) among tech professionals and business leaders looking to find any life hack that will give them an edge in the fast-moving marketplace of Silicon Valley. The allure seems to center around promises of improving work performance and inspiring creative thinking.

“I just notice a very slight brightness around the edges,” says a man we’ll call George. “It’s not like tripping at all. I can still go about my daily business and nobody knows that I’m microdosing.”

George is a professional in his forties who is well-respected in his community. He has been microdosing psilocybin multiple times a week for the last two years. He crushes the dried mushrooms that he purchased on the black market and carefully distributes the powder into gelatin capsules to make sure he ingests the right amount. “I take 0.2 grams every three days,” he says. “It’s a tenth of the dose that people do for partying.”

George says he was suffering from PTSD resulting from his experiences as a veteran when he found out about psilocybin. “I read on the internet that vets were taking mushrooms and feeling better.” So he gave it a try and had a full-blown psilocybin trip on a regular dose. “I hated it,” he says. “It was just way too crazy, and I didn’t like it at all.”

That’s when a friend suggested microdosing. George tried it and says the results were spectacular. “I just took a little bit and had a heart-to-heart with my girlfriend,” he says. “We talked about a lot of stuff. … It was amazing.”

Health Benefits of Psilocybin

The mental health benefits of magic mushrooms are becoming more apparent as time passes and more research is given the green light by authorities. There have been indications that psilocybin—one of two psychedelic compounds found in magic mushrooms—can be used to treat symptoms associated with depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and cluster headaches.

But the most impressive effects seem to be those that address mental health issues. In 2018 the Food and Drug Administration designated a psilocybin-based pharmaceutical being tested by COMPASS Pathways as a “breakthrough therapy” for treatment-resistant depression. The designation meant that the drug could be fast-tracked because of its potential to help treat life-threatening conditions. According to the agency, a drug can only be granted the designation if “preliminary clinical evidence … demonstrates the drug may have substantial improvement on at least one clinically significant endpoint over available therapy.”

In 2019 America’s oldest research institution, Johns Hopkins University, opened a center dedicated to psychedelic research. Through a number of clinical trials, scientists at the school have found compelling evidence that psilocybin can play a role in treating tobacco and opioid addiction. It could also help alleviate PTSD as well as depression and anxiety suffered by patients with life-threatening cancers.

Therapy or Placebo?

However, all of these trials utilized doses that were well above the threshold of psychedelic experience. The science behind microdosing in particular is not as clear.

For one thing: We must question how a person can tell whether the drug is having any effect at all if there are little-to-no sensations associated with the practice. If microdosing barely breaks the threshold of perception, how would one judge whether it is having an effect?

A study that was just published in the journal eLife avoided the problem of providing illegal substances to its participants by teaching them to create a self-blinding study using their own privately collected psilocybin mushrooms. The participants were taught how to make placebo capsules that could be compared with active psilocybin capsules.

The results were astonishing. Participants who thought they had taken mushroom capsules felt improvement in their sense of well-being and lower anxiety than those who thought they had taken a placebo. And this effect was consistent across the board, whether participants took the placebo or not.

So is microdosing psilocybin the answer to America’s mental health problems? Probably not. It looks like researchers would do best to continue looking into conventional dosing instead.


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