Microdosing LSD Could Enhance Cognition Without Altering Consciousness

Microdosing involves taking tiny doses of psychedelic drugs. Marc Bruxelle/Shutterstock

Psychedelic microdosing has been reported to treat depression, ease period pains, and inspire people to quit their jobs, which is quite remarkable given that no one actually knows what it is. The practice involves taking tiny doses of psychedelic substances like LSD and psilocybin, yet there is no consensus on how small these quantities should be, or indeed whether the exact dosage even matters.

However, thanks to the first ever placebo-controlled study on LSD microdosing, we finally have some real data that could at the very least help to define what microdosing is, even if it still leaves many questions unanswered. Published in the journal Psychopharmacology, the study provides the first solid hint that microdosing really can alter cognition while leaving consciousness intact.

Despite becoming hugely popular in Silicon Valley for its purported ability to enhance focus and creativity, microdosing has always been dogged by two fundamental questions: first, is it all just a placebo, and second, should a microdose be subperceptual – meaning it produces no noticeable alterations of consciousness – or should it be big enough to be felt just a little bit?

To investigate, researchers gave 48 people either a placebo or 5, 10, or 20 micrograms of LSD – all of which are small enough quantities to be considered in the microdose range. Before proceeding to any actual tests, they first asked participants if they could feel any effects from what they had taken, and found that those who had ingested the drug were slightly more likely to report changes in consciousness than those who had received the placebo.

Participants were then shown a blue dot on a screen for a period of between 0.8 and four seconds, before being asked to recreate this duration by holding down a button for the same length of time. According to the study authors, this activity brings into play multiple aspects of cognition such as memory, working memory, attention, arousal, and affect.

Results showed that people who had received the placebo consistently held the button down for a shorter period of time than the blue dot had been displayed for, while those who had taken LSD held it down for longer. The authors claim that this is most likely down to an enhancement in selective attention, though they admit that they can't be sure of this.

Most importantly, there was no correlation between the tendency to overestimate time and the likelihood to report noticeable changes in consciousness. The researchers therefore conclude that microdosing with LSD does impact cognition independently of any effects on consciousness, which means that subperceptual doses of the psychedelic drug do indeed influence the functioning of the brain.

However, while this study goes some way toward proving that microdosing with subperceptual doses isn’t just a placebo, it should not be taken as proof that it can heal depression, or that you should quit your job.

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