What Do We Know About Microdosing Psychedelics?

Traditionally, psychedelics are linked to mind-altering effects: dissolutions of boundaries between the self and the outer world, changes in the way one understands and interacts with society, intensification of the senses, even profound mystical experiences. There is a growing number of studies that delve into the inner workings of the brain when under the influence of higher doses of psychedelics (like psilocybin, LSD and DMT), showing that there are a number of benefits to be gained from using the substances.

However, not many studies have been done regarding microdosing —that is, taking small amounts of psychoactive substances, which would not cause the user to experience hallucinogenic effects. What do we know about the practice? What does science say about it?

Inner Workings

In 2001, Marcus Raichle coined the term 'default mode network' (DMN) to reference a network of interacting brain regions that are always operating in the background but are less active when performing a focused task. That means that when resting or daydreaming — “when involved in internal mental-state processes” — the DMN is the most active, with the brain connecting parts of itself that don’t usually work together. The DMN is also profoundly connected to the way we understand other people since it is thought to play an important role in our capacity to comprehend what others may be feeling or thinking.

As time passes, neural pathways in the brain become fixed as a way of spending less energy and time. The same happens to the DMN; the network becomes more constrained as we develop.

Even though according to some studies, there could be a link between psilocybin and LSD and new ways in which de DMN connects, not much is known about what happens when taking lesser amounts of psychedelics. Vince Polito, a senior research fellow in the School of Psychological Sciences, is set on finding the answer.

What does science say?

In 2017, Polito conducted his first study on microdosing and the effects it had on 63 Australians who self-identified as microdosers. The research was published in 2019 and showed that the effects of microdosing “were more subtle than typical media accounts” from the moment.

“Participants reported a general positive boost on microdosing days but effects were (mostly) not sustained on subsequent days,” shared Polito on his website. The study also showed a decrease in depression and stressful feelings, as well as lower levels of distractibility and increased imagination.

In his next study, which had its first patient in February, Polito is examining the effects on the brain using magnetoencephalography (MEG) scans. The study’s goal is to evaluate whether actual changes occur in the brain when microdosing, or if it acts as a placebo, due to people’s expectations of what should happen.

A more recent study, from the Beckley Foundation and Maastricht University, showed that low doses of LSD could increase neuroplasticity in the brain. In a similar vein, a paper published in November in Nature, which Polito co-authored, found that people who microdose showed lower levels of anxiety, depression and stress. Also, they were less likely to frequently use alcohol than people who did not microdose.

However, it may not all be perfect in the world of microdosing. The regular use of psychedelics might have some issues attached, particularly of those which agonize 5-HT2B receptors. This mechanism has been linked to heart valve problems and could represent a stump in the progress of regular use of psychedelics.

Luckily, this problem, and others, could be solved thanks to second-generation psychedelics, making microdosing a more common practice.

Photo: Courtesy of prettydrugthings on Unsplash

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