The science of microdosing is still in its infancy. Meaning the science behind microdosing still needs to be fully understood. But a growing interest among researchers has resulted in several studies showing mood, creativity, and productivity benefits
Microdosing refers to consuming small amounts of a substance, typically Lysergamides or one of its analogues. People also microdose using psilocybin, a compound found in magic mushrooms and magic truffles.
The idea isn’t to hallucinate or drastically alter your conscious state. When you microdose, you don’t feel high, nor do you go on a “trip.” Instead, microdosing creates subtle cognitive and emotional enhancements.
But is there any science behind this? What is the science of microdosing?
The Science of Microdosing
Studies on microdosing are, unfortunately, few and far between. However, that’s not to say we don’t have anything to go on. The science of microdosing may be limited, but the research itself is thorough.
A placebo-controlled study used healthy young adults and asked them to complete mood questionnaires and behavioural tasks. At the same time, the researchers assessed their emotional processing and cognition. The researchers also looked at changes in body temperature and cardiovascular measures.
They concluded that “a threshold dose of 13 μg of LSD might be used safely in an investigation of repeated administrations,” and that in larger doses, the volunteers reported “increased ratings of vigor.” But, say the researchers, it remains to be seen whether microdosing can improve symptoms of depression.
The research paper “Microdosing Psychedelics: Motivations, subjective effects and harm reduction” offers some insights. Although this study surveyed people who were already microdosing and lacked a control group, it offers insights into why people microdose.
40% said it was to improve their mental health, 31% microdose for personal development, and 18% did it for cognitive enhancements.
And indeed, a systematic review of microdosing research (spanning from 1955 to 2021) found evidence that microdosing can influence pain perception, time perception, and subjective awareness. The researchers also found emerging evidence of potential benefits in mental health, substance use disorders and overall well-being.
The researchers accounted for the placebo effect. In fact, they found that studies that attribute microdosing benefits to placebo are “premature and possibly wrong.”
Why Does Microdosing Work?
Research is catching up to the science of microdosing, but we still have a long way to go. We know that the brain’s default mode network (DMN) changes in large doses of psychedelics. Some speculate that an overactive DMN contributes to mental health issues like depression and anxiety. So microdosing may help reduce DMN activity.
Another theory on the science of microdosing looks at our serotonin receptors. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that plays a role in regulating our mood, appetite, and sleep. Some speculate that psychedelics may activate specific serotonin receptors in the brain.
With specific serotonin receptors activated, changes in brain activity lead to neuroplasticity. Specifically, increasing the activity of the 5-HT2A receptors, which we find in the prefrontal cortex.
These receptors are involved in higher-order cognitive functions such as working memory and decision-making. If microdosing affects them positively, you can see why many swear by its ability to increase productivity.
Researchers have linked activating 5-HT2A receptors with increased releases of the neurotransmitter glutamate. Glutamate is involved in synaptic plasticity and learning, meaning it helps your brain grow.
Granted, the relationship between serotonin receptors and microdosing is not clear-cut. Nor has it been demonstrated that a microdose of a psychedelic can alter the DMN like a large dose can.
More research is needed to confirm these theories.
How to Prove The Science of Microdosing
The relationship between serotonin receptor activation and microdosing has yet to be fully understood. But what do we mean by needing more research? How could we go about proving the science of microdosing?
One approach that could help is neuroimaging techniques such as positron emission tomography (PET) or functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). These can measure brain changes in someone following a microdosing protocol.
Researchers could compare the brain scans of people who have taken microdoses against those who haven’t. And indeed, there have been microdosing studies that did this. One study used an ELISA test and found changes in the brain-derived neurotrophic factor.
Another approach could be to use animal models to investigate microdosing’s effects on serotonin receptors and other brain systems. Researchers often use rodents to study neural plasticity, learning, and memory.
If ethics boards have a problem using humans to test the effects of psychedelics, perhaps rodents could fill in the gap.
The Science of Microdosing: The Ideal Study
We’ve seen more microdosing research conducted in the last twenty years than ever thought possible. As psychedelic therapy enters the mainstream, research topics that were once taboo are now openly discussed.
With that in mind, what would make for the ideal microdosing study? The science of microdosing is a fact of reality. Now, how do we describe that reality in scientific terms?
Designing the ideal microdosing study would involve several key considerations to ensure it is robust and informative. Some key elements to include would be:
Controlled conditions: Participants should be randomly assigned to receive either a microdose of the psychedelic substance or a placebo. The study should be double-blind, meaning that neither the participants nor the researchers know who has received which treatment. This helps ensure that any observed effects are due to the substance researchers are studying rather than to placebo effects or other factors.
Accurate dosing: The dose of the psychedelic substance should be carefully calibrated and measured to ensure that participants receive a consistent and precise dose. This can be challenging, as the potency of different substances can vary widely. However, this isn’t insurmountable.
Comprehensive outcome measures: The study should use a range of outcome measures to assess the effects of microdosing, including subjective criteria such as mood and well-being and objective measures of cognitive function and neural activity. Researchers should select measures based on the specific research questions.
Longitudinal design: An ideal microdosing study would track participants over a longer period to assess the effects of repeated microdosing and monitor any potential long-term effects associated with microdosing.
Safety monitoring: The study should carefully monitor participants for any possible adverse effects or safety concerns. Participants should be provided with appropriate support and resources if needed.
Large sample size: To ensure the results are robust and generalizable, an ideal microdosing study would include a large sample size, ideally several hundred participants or more.
Whether we’ll see this ideal microdosing study happen in real life remains to be seen. However, it is more likely now than twenty years ago. We may not fully understand the science of microdosing, but we’re getting closer to the truth with every passing year.