Benefits Of Psychedelic Microdosing May Just Be The Placebo Effect

New research indicates that some of these supposed benefits may be more to do with users’ expectations rather than the drug itself. Image credit: yurok/Shutterstock.com

Psychedelic microdosing has been hyped up by plenty of anecdotal tales and a small number of trials, but new study hints that some of these benefits may simply be down to the placebo effect.

Microdosing is the practice of regularly taking sub-perceptible doses of psychedelic drugs with the idea it can subtly oil the cogs of cognition without producing any noticeable "high," let alone a mind-altering trip. Many people have reported that this helps to boost mood, energy levels, and creativity, while some proponents have even suggested it could serve as a possible treatment for depression, addiction, and other mental health conditions. 

However, new research indicates that some of these supposed benefits may be more to do with users’ expectations rather than the drug itself. In a recent trial of almost 200 people, most of the participants reported similar psychological benefits regardless of whether they had been taking microdosed psychoactive drugs or placebos. Reporting their findings in the journal eLife, the researchers conclude that their results suggest psychological benefits linked with taking regular, minuscule doses of psychedelic drugs are likely the result of users’ expectations. 

"Our results are mixed: on the one hand, we observed microdosing's benefits in a wide range of psychological measures; on the other hand, equal benefits were seen among participants taking placebos,” Balázs Szigeti, lead author and a research associate at Imperial College London, said in a statement. “These findings suggest that the benefits are not due to the drug, but rather due to the placebo-like expectation effects. Many participants who reported that they experienced positive effects while taking the placebo were shocked to learn after the study that they hadn’t been taking the real drug.”

The trial, the largest of its kind, saw a total of 191 participants take a gel capsule containing either a low dose of a psychedelic drug or a placebo twice a day for a period of four weeks. A range of drugs was available to the participants: most of them opted for LSD or an LSD analog, others chose psilocybin from “magic mushrooms”, and three individuals took other psychedelics such as LSA or DOB. During the study, they were also asked to fill out a range of online surveys and cognitive tests looking to understand their experience of taking the drug. 

The researchers found that most people described a positive effect on their mood, creativity, and anxiety within hours of taking a microdose of the psychedelic drug. However, distinctly similar psychological benefits were also reported among participants who thought they were taking a microdose, but actually took a placebo.

The trial used a novel “self-blinding” methodology, in which the participants prepared the drug capsules and the placebo capsules, but were then made unaware of which they were taking. The researchers concede that this means their results might not as reliable or robust as the results from a traditional placebo-controlled study, since the participants sourced their drugs from the black market. On the other hand, they argue that this method might better reflect microdosing in the real world, as opposed to a clinical trial.

“Accounting for the placebo effect is important when assessing trends such as the use of cannabidiol oils, fad diets or supplements where social pressure or users’ expectations can lead to a strong placebo response. Self-blinding citizen science initiatives could be used as an inexpensive, initial screening tool before launching expensive clinical studies," adds senior author David Erritzoe, Clinical Senior Lecturer in Psychiatry at Imperial College London. 

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