Psychedelic “microdosing” found to have similar effects to placebo

March 4, 2021
Psychedelic “microdosing” found to have similar effects to placebo

New research led by a team at Imperial College London, UK, suggests there is little difference in reported benefits between a microdose – low doses of psychedelics such as LSD – and a placebo. Despite very little empirical evidence showing it works, the popular practice of microdosing is believed to generate enhancements to productivity, creativity, mental well-being and energy.

Researchers ran a rigorous controlled trial to test whether microdosing actually works: the team from Imperial College London developed a unique self-blinding protocol in which volunteers, who self-reported personal microdosing practices, were directed to create their own collection of microdoses and placebos.

The study recruited 191 subjects who were broken up into three groups – placebo, microdosers and a half-half group taking microdoses for two weeks and placebo for two weeks. The subjects also completed a number of cognitive and psychological tests across the four-week study period.

Balázs Szigeti, a research associate at Imperial College London, said the results showed those subjects taking a placebo reported the same benefits as those taking microdoses. “Our findings confirmed some of the beneficial psychological effects of microdosing from anecdotal reports and observational studies, such as improved sense of wellbeing and life satisfaction.”

“But we see the same improvements among participants taking placebos. This suggests that the improvements may not be due to the pharmacological action of the drug but can instead be explained by the placebo effect,” Szigeti added.

The results of the trial were notably presented not as “clinical evidence” but rather more representative of “real life microdosing,” as volunteers were using their own psychedelic substances. In addition to the self-admitted regular microdosers, many in the placebo group were ultimately surprised to find they were not taking active microdoses during the trial period.

“It appears that I was indeed taking placebos throughout the trial,” one participant is reported as saying. “I’m quite astonished […] It seems I was able to generate a powerful ‘altered consciousness’ experience based only the expectation around the possibility of a microdose.”

Sitting in between an observational study and a controlled clinical trial, this kind of self-blinded naturalistic methodology is concluded to offer novel, cost-effective insights into real-world uses of drugs. Dr. David Erritzoe, clinical senior lecturer in psychiatry at Imperial, hopes to see more research utilise this unique methodology.

“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 therefore be used as an inexpensive, initial screening tool before launching expensive clinical studies.”

Read: Placebos elicit genuine psychobiological effects when patients believe them

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