Current Issue #488

Can Micro-Dosing Hallucinogens Cure Mental Illness?

Can Micro-Dosing Hallucinogens Cure Mental Illness?

Dr Jessica L. Paterson steps in to bring you up to speed on the debate around whether micro-tripping the light fantastic can help treat addiction, anxiety and depression.

On April 19 you may have celebrated the 74th anniversary of Bicycle Day. Then again, perhaps you didn’t. No, Bicycle Day is not a day to shave your legs and enjoy a Lycra and espresso-based holiday but, rather, Bicycle Day is when scientists and trippers alike commemorate the discovery of D-lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD.

The day is so named because on April 19, 1943, Albert Hofmann, he who discovered LSD, took a micro-dose of the drug and documented the bicycle ride of his life through Basel Switzerland. Hofmann’s discovery led to a paradigm shift in mental health care and psychotherapy, with microdoses of LSD found to be an effective addition to the treatment of addiction, anxiety and depression.

Micro-dosing involves taking ‘subperceptual’ amounts of psychedelic drugs like LSD or psilocybin (‘shrooms’), about one tenth of a ‘normal’ dose. The term ‘subperceptual’ means that the dose doesn’t cause a noticeable subjective effect, but your brain is physiologically abuzz.

How abuzz, you ask? Well, a collaboration between the Beckley Foundation – a UK-based non-governmental organisation focused on psychedelics research (kind of like Roxy Music) – and Oxford University has shown that psychedelic drugs reduce the blood supply to the brain’s default mode network (DMN). The DMN is the brain’s ‘gateway to consciousness’, and controls what enters conscious awareness and what does not. With the DMN out of commission, other areas of the brain can communicate more openly with one another. The result is an increase in creative thinking, but also (apparently) freedom from previously established problematic patterns of thought. The latter effect being one mechanism via which micro-dosing with psychedelics may have therapeutic benefits for people suffering from chronic depression.

Psychologist Dr James Fadiman dominated micro-dosing research in the 1960s. However, he had to hand in his tie-dyed lab coat when LSD was ruled a Schedule 1 substance under Nixon’s War on Drugs in the late ‘60s. Cut to 2000, when Fadiman, along with fellow psychologist Dr Sophia Korb, started a (rather lo-fi) website where ‘citizen scientists’ interested in microdosing can document their experience. The website outlines the drugs of interest, primarily LSD and psilocybin, and the appropriate micro-dosage. People are then invited to log their experiences via the website. These data are collated and analysed by the research team, then fed back to the academic and medical community as evidence of micro-dosing’s efficacy.

Predictably, the reports from people who have done this are positive – how many people who volunteer to do this are likely to say it wasn’t great? Fadiman told the BBC, “The most consistent result is people saying, ‘My life seems to be working better.’ [They are] more effective, their sleeping habits improve, their eating habits improve, they feel better in social situations.”

The smarty-pantses in Silicon Valley have been all over this for years, of course. Steve Jobs admitted quite openly to using LSD, and claimed the experience was “one of the two or three most important things I have done in my life”. Even straight-laced Bill Gates, creator of the world’s most boring computers, has alluded to using LSD in his “errant youth”. It’s probably no surprise then that all the young upstarts with their tech start-ups are micro-dosing as a way to manage the pressure to create and innovate. But are we getting cause and effect around the wrong way – perhaps risk-takers are more likely to take drugs and start multi-billion dollar businesses from their parents’ Palo Alto garages?

But please, calm the commune, settle the drum circle. There is still a long way to go before microdosing becomes anything close to a safe and legal option for treating mental disorder, or for enhancing creativity. One obvious concern is that some people would take a seal of medical approval as a blanket ‘thumbs-up’ and go full Lohan. The other is that, given the illegal nature of the drugs involved, there are very few clinical trials actually supporting the use of micro-dosing. Determining the appropriate dose for each person is basically impossible, and you build resistance over time, so a micro-dose might not be so ‘micro’ for long. Before you venture down the rabbit hole, maybe go ask Alice…

Dr Jessica L Paterson, Senior Research Fellow, CQUniversity, Appleton Institute

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