Microdosing psychedelics lacks scientific evidence, researchers say

The practice of taking small, regular doses of psychedelic drugs to enhance mood, creativity, or productivity lacks robust scientific evidence, according to new research published in the
Journal of Psychopharmacology.

The process, called microdosing, has been lauded by some, but scientific evidence to support or even fully explore claims of the benefits and safety has been lacking, according to the review paper authored by an international group of researchers, led by Imperial College London in England and Maastricht University in the Netherlands.

According to the researchers, despite so much interest in the subject, microdosing psychedelics, such as lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) or psilocybin, does not have scientific consensus as to what constitutes a microdose, how often someone should take a microdose, or if there are potential health effects.

The research team led by senior author David Nutt, PhD, 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, to improve well-being and enhance cognitive or emotional processes. 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 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 as one of the two most commonly used psychedelic substances, 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. 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.

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, according to researchers. Despite the renaissance in the science of psychedelic research, the drugs in the field, chiefly psilocybin, LSD, and N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) remain Schedule 1 Drugs under the UN Convention.

The team hopes that the evidence laid out in their review will go some way to focus the attention of the research community to answer some of the major remaining questions in the field. They state 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.

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