A University of Toronto Mississauga researcher and his colleagues have “uncovered high potential research avenues” for assessing the benefits and drawbacks of microdosing with the psychedelic substances LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) and psilocybin (the key ingredient in magic mushrooms).
Their study, published recently in the Harm Reduction Journal, found that people who took very small doses of psychedelic substances commonly reported improved mood and focus, along with concerns about illegality and stigma.
Microdosing refers to the practice of regularly ingesting small, non-hallucinogenic amounts of psychedelic substances.
The National Post traces the trend back to 2010 when biohackers began seeking a competitive edge.
Thomas Anderson, a Ph.D. student and cognitive neuroscientist, Associate Professor of psychology Norman Farb, Rotem Petranker from York University, and colleagues from the U of T Faculty of Medicine and U of T Scarborough are the first to explore microdosing scientifically.
“The most common benefit was improved mood, which suggests that researching microdosing as a potential pharmacotherapeutic treatment for depression could be worthwhile,” Anderson says.
“Microdosing could provide a possible alternative to SSRIs [selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors, a class of drugs commonly used to fight depression], which are great but don’t work for everyone.
“Microdosing won’t work for everyone, either, but it could provide a possible alternative to other treatment pathways.”
Participants also reported improved creativity, which includes divergent thinking, curiosity and openness.
This creativity finding agrees with another recent publication by Anderson and colleagues that reported microdosers were more creative and open and less neurotic and dysfunctional.
In the paper, Anderson and colleagues collected reports from almost 300 self-identified microdosers and have distilled the reported improvements into categories.
The top categories were: improved mood (27 percent of reports), focus (15 percent), creativity (13 percent) and self-efficacy (11 percent). Mood refers not only to happiness and well-being but also to reduced depression, according to participants.
The top challenges associated with microdosing were physiological discomfort and concerns about illegality.
The discomfort included complaints such as headaches, nausea and insomnia, while illegality posed the biggest concern for microdosers, who must shop the black market to get psychedelics.
They may not be sure of the purity of their purchases and there may be an irregular supply.
Stigma concerning illegal substances was also present, but users may not face as much stigma as the microdosing community fears, says Anderson.
“Many people are relatively accepting of psychedelics privately, but the same people can incorrectly believe that others are not so accepting and so they think there is lots of stigma when there isn’t.
We’ve had academics come out of the woodwork to support us – we have not heard from anyone that’s actually against the responsible scientific study of these substances.”
The authors caution that the study makes no causal claims – that it simply reflects the experiences of people involved in microdosing.
“Scientifically speaking, we don’t know if microdosing does anything at all,” says Anderson, adding the goal of the paper is to provide a basis for future research and to reveal research avenues with high potential so funding can be spent investigating the most promising uses of microdosing.
“Ultimately, pre-registered randomized placebo-controlled trials (RCTs) of microdosing psychedelics are needed to test its safety and efficacy,” the authors write.
Microdosing refers to the practice of ingesting a very low dose of a psychedelic substance . There has been little peer-reviewed research on microdosing but there are numerous blogs and online communities that discuss the practice, with detailed guides to methods and anecdotal reports of outcomes (e.g., www.microdosing.com; www.reddit.com/microdosing/wiki).
Typical doses can be as small as one twentieth of a typical recreational dose, sometimes even less .
So, for example, a microdose of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) might be 6–25 micrograms, or a microdose of psilocybin might be .1 to .5 grams of dried mushrooms .
People microdose using a wide range of different substances, although LSD and psilocybin are the most commonly discussed in online forums .
Psychedelics have typically been associated with marked alterations in cognition, affect, perception, and neurophysiology .
Individuals who have taken psychedelics typically describe pronounced changes in visual and auditory perception, accompanied by vivid imaginative experiences and intense emotions.
This is not the case with microdosing.
Microdosing is frequently described as involving a ‘sub-threshold’ dose .
That is, individuals aim to identify a dose at which they do not feel ‘high’.
In other words, when microdosing there are only minimal identifiable acute drug effects.
People follow a variety of different schedules when microdosing, sometimes taking a dose each day but much more frequently interspersing dosing days with rest days.
One common schedule is to microdose every three days .
The idea behind this regimen is that there may be a residual effect from each microdose that lasts one to two days afterwards.
Despite the reported lack of acute effects of microdosing, proponents claim a wide variety of psychological and social benefits from regular microdosing, including increases in vitality, creativity, productivity, social ability, focus, analytic thinking, positive mood, memory, mindfulness and general wellbeing .
Microdosing is thus a curious phenomenon: on the one hand advocates deny experiencing the alterations in consciousness that characterise typical doses, yet claim significant psychological benefits from regular use.
The earliest occurrence of microdosing is unknown.
Anthropological reports indicate that many traditional cultures incorporated use of psychedelic plants such as peyote, morning glory seeds and psilocybin containing mushrooms into many aspects of daily life .
These substances were used as a catalyst for ritual religious experience , but also used at lower doses as an aphrodisiac, to reduce hunger, inspire courage, nullify pain, and to treat ailments such as gout and syphilis .
These uses highlight that although psychedelics are now commonly associated with marked alterations in consciousness, they also have also been used historically at low doses for therapeutic benefits and functional enhancement.
The modern practice of microdosing is quite a recent phenomenon. Albert Hofman, the discover of LSD, mentioned the use of very low doses of LSD (25 micrograms) in passing during in a 1976 interview  but we have not been able to identify any other records from Dr Hofman or his contemporaries describing microdosing.
Stanislav Grof developed psycholytic psychotherapy  as a form of psychedelic assisted therapy that involved small amounts of LSD, but the lower range for doses was over 100 micrograms – considerably higher than contemporary microdosing.
There was no formal research on microdosing prior to the prohibition of psychedelic research in 1966.
The current popularity of microdosing can be traced back to a book, The Psychedelic Explorers Guide by James Fadiman .
This was the first publication to describe microdosing in detail. Fadiman outlined the purported benefits of regular microdosing, with a recommendation to follow a three-day cycle, and guidelines for appropriate doses.
This publication also contained a collection of case reports from individuals about their microdosing experiences, emphasising positive improvements in creativity, focus, affect, and relationships.
In the years following this publication, a number of news articles appeared reporting on the growing interest in microdosing.
The first major publication to report on the phenomenon was Rolling Stone .
This article triggered considerable popular media interest in microdosing psychedelics that has led to over 1200 news articles on the topic since that time.
This sudden high level of almost exclusively positive news coverage has been accompanied by the emergence of multiple communities of microdosers on social media.
For example, a forum on microdosing on reddit.com has over 24,000 members who report on their experiences and compare notes on methodologies, outcomes and protocols.
The comprehensive news coverage and active online communities of microdosers have led to a situation where large numbers of individuals are experimenting with microdosing, with the expectation that this practice leads to substantial psychological and wellbeing benefits.
To date there are four scientific articles on microdosing.
Three of these indicate potential benefits from microdosing.
First, Johnstad  conducted a series of interviews with microdosers, who reported generally positive outcomes, including improved mood, energy levels and cognition.
Second, in an open label study, Prochazkova et al.  found that microdosing led to increases in convergent and divergent thinking–common indicators of creativity.
Third, a large cross sectional study found that microdosers reported reduced levels of negative attitudes and emotions, and increased wisdom, open-mindedness and creativity, relative to people who had never microdosed .
Fourth, the most scientifically rigorous study to date, was a double blind placebo controlled study by Yanakieva et al. .
This study showed changes in time perception following microdosing, but did not investigate variables related to health or wellbeing.
Although microdosing is understudied, its sudden popular interest has occurred within a context of growing scientific attention on the effects of psychedelics taken at higher doses .
After a long period of minimal research with psychedelic compounds as a result of government prohibitions, an increasing number of research teams have in recent years reported compelling findings suggesting both improved psychological functioning  and potential therapeutic benefits  associated with a range of psychedelic substances.
When administered to healthy individuals in a supportive setting, both psilocybin [30–33] and LSD , have been shown to elicit mystical-type experiences that are characterised as highly meaningful and transformative by participants.
In the case of psilocybin, Griffiths et al.  reported persisting self and observer rated positive effects on attitudes, mood and behaviour 14 months after ingestion, with 58% of participants reporting that their psilocybin experience was among the five most personally meaningful experiences of their lives.
In addition psilocybin has been shown to increase emotional empathy , whereas LSD has been shown to increase feelings of well-being, closeness to others and trust ; increase emotional response and personal meaningfulness to music [39,40]; and increase suggestibility .
In more clinically oriented research, both psilocybin and LSD have shown promise as treatments for end of life anxiety.
In a double blind, randomised crossover trial of psilocybin assisted psychotherapy as a treatment of anxiety and depression in terminal cancer patients, Griffiths et al.  found remission in both depressive and anxious symptoms for over 60% of patients at 6 month follow up.
A similar trial of LSD assisted psychotherapy by Gasser, Kirchner and Passie  found significant reductions in state and trait anxiety that were maintained at 12-month follow up.
Psilocybin has also been shown to reduce the symptoms of treatment resistant depression , and to dramatically reduce consumption levels when trialled as a treatment for tobacco addition [45,46], and alcohol dependence .
As a result of this increased research activity, researchers are developing a clearer picture of the psychopharmacological mechanisms that underlie psychedelic substances.
A comprehensive review of the mechanisms of action of psychedelics is provided by Nichols .
Briefly, it is well established that classic serotonergic psychedelics such as psilocybin, dimenthyltryptamine (DMT), mescaline and LSD act (at least partially) through an agonistic effect on 5-HT2Areceptors throughout the brain , and recent work has suggested that long term use of psychedelics may lead to structural changes in the posterior and anterior cingulate cortices .
Recent research has also indicated that psychedelics lead to reduced activity in the default mode network, a network of brain regions thought to support general background activity associated with the functions of normal waking consciousness, such as metacognition, social attributions and self reflection .
This reduction in typical neural activity is accompanied with an increase in connectivity between brain regions that usually function relatively independently .
New findings on the effects of higher dose psychedelics are being published at a rapid rate, and overall the emerging research suggests that these substances may have beneficial impacts across a range of psychological, cognitive, affective, and psychosocial domains.
These findings have informed the cultural narrative around microdosing and the broad scope of constructs that appear to be influenced by psychedelics taken at higher doses is consistent with the diverse range of effects described by proponents of microdosing.
Furthermore, research into the role of psychedelics in the brain provides at least a plausible account of the potential neural mechanisms of microdosing.
There has been no specific research into the safety of microdosing, however research with higher doses of psychedelics suggests that these substances are relatively safe .
Individuals do sometimes have disturbing experiences on psychedelics, including negative emotions, perceptual disturbances, and even psychotic symptoms, and these effects can have a persisting negative impact for some people [53,54].
A number of studies have ranked the comparative risks of different types of drugs for both the user and broader society; these studies have consistently found that psychedelics are among the least harmful substances, with far less personal and societal risks than legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco [59,60].
The doses involved in microdosing are considerably smaller than typical doses and so it may seem reasonable to assume that any risks would be diminished, but it is worth noting that psychedelics are usually taken relatively infrequently, even by enthusiasts.
It is possible that chronic low-dose exposure to psychedelics, as occurs in microdosing, may involve unknown risks .
The motivation for the current study was to attempt to resolve some of the unknown questions around microdosing.
There is currently considerable popular interest in this practice with indications that a great many individuals are experimenting with regular low doses of psychedelics .
Online discourse on microdosing presents a wide range of potential positive benefits.
The prominence of these positive claims may lead individuals to develop expectations about what their own experience of microdosing will be like, and these expectancies themselves may influence participants’ reports.
The potential role of expectancy effects may be amplified by two factors.
First, most individuals who become curious about microdosing would likely need to go to some effort (and some risk) to source and prepare psychedelic substances in order to begin experimenting.
It is reasonable to suppose that this effort would lead to a sense of investment in the expected outcome, and may bias individuals to perceive the effects they are expecting.
Second, as described above, the immediate effect of each microdose is only a very minimal (“subthreshold”) alteration in consciousness. Microdosers may interpret these subtle and ambiguous effects in line with their expectations. We explore the role of expectancy or placebo effects in Study Two.
On the other hand, there are plausible neurobiological mechanisms that may account for microdosing effects, and a growing body of research suggesting a range of reliable positive benefits from higher doses of psychedelics .
There have been no published empirical studies of microdosing and it is unclear how accurate anecdotal reports of benefits are.
The current legal and bureaucratic climate makes direct empirical investigation of the effects of psychedelics difficult and the approval process for experimental work is prohibitively lengthy. With this background, we designed a study that could be completed relatively rapidly, as an initial exploratory investigation into the effects of microdosing.
We aimed to carefully track a cohort of healthy individuals who microdose in a systematic, observational study to see if measures taken using well validated psychometric assessments would match anecdotal claims regarding the effects of microdosing.
This subclass of substances (which includes LSD, psilocybin, mescaline and number of synthetic ‘research chemicals’) all act upon 5-HT receptor sites.
We identified psychological variables that may be affected by microdosing in three ways: by reviewing descriptions of microdosing effects in online forums and media reports; by reference to scientific reports of the effects of higher doses of psychedelics [30,44,65–67]; and in consultation with James Fadiman (personal communication, February 20, 2016). Nine domains were selected for investigation: mood, attention, wellbeing, mindfulness, mystical experiences, personality, absorption, creativity, and sense of agency.
More information: Thomas Anderson et al. Psychedelic microdosing benefits and challenges: an empirical codebook, Harm Reduction Journal(2019). DOI: 10.1186/s12954-019-0308-4
Provided by University of Toronto