A new study will answer whether microdosing LSD is placebo or medicine

A new study will answer whether microdosing LSD is placebo or medicine

VicesApril 02, 2019 By Sean Lawlor

People say wild things about microdosing LSD. They say it makes them smarter, and happier, and more fulfilled. Heck, it’s all-but common knowledge now that Silicon Valley tech people microdose to think more creatively and alter human history at a faster rate. Even squares like The Guardian, GQ, and The New York Times have reported on it, and bestselling author Ayelet Waldman even wrote a book about how microdosing worked wonders for her mood disorder and saved her marriage. 

But wait! Isn’t LSD that terrible substance that gets lodged in the spinal fluid for horrible lifelong flashbacks leading to an inevitable psychotic break? 

According to Richard Nixon, yes. But he was a big-schnozed liar. Yeah, you oughta avoid psychedelics if you’re mentally unstable, but that whole spinal fluid fear is one of many LSD myths (alongside the I-Can-Fly-Let’s-Jump-Out-A-Window! one) based far more on propaganda than reality. 

But LSD fries the brain! It creates anarchy and hippies! It threatens the status quo! 

Well, are you reading this on an iPhone? Remember Steve Jobs? He called LSD “a profound experience, one of the most important things in my life.” Is there anything more status quo than Apple? 

Then there’s ole Francis Crick, who claimed LSD helped him discover the double-helix structure to DNA, a staple of status-quo biology classes. And Aldous Huxley, writer of Brave New World — big-time high school required reading — who had his wife Laura inject him with LSD on his deathbed. (Watch Laura reflect back on the incredibly peaceful moment of Aldous’ passing.) And Ken Kesey wrote most of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest while tripping during his night shift at the psych ward. And The Beatles changed the face of music forever thanks to meeting Lucy in 1965. And on and on the merry-go-round keeps spinning. 

Whether or not you acknowledge it, LSD’s influence factors into our “status quo” culture through discoveries, inventions, and art we laud to the highest degree. 

Then again, this microdosing phenomenon is different. Microdosing isn’t tripping balls and watching wormholes form in the sky. According to Mr. Microdose Man Dr. James Fadiman, microdosing is taking a “sub-perceptual” dose — about 1/10 of a standard dose — so that, as Fadiman says, “the rocks don’t glitter, and the flowers don’t turn and watch you.”

Fadiman’s gotten the microdosing ball a-rollin. In 2017, he presented results from a study surveying 418 volunteers on the effects microdosing had on their lives. Basically everyone reported improvements in energy, alertness, and general well-being — the only negative result was that some experienced increased anxiety, a generally-accepted possible-side-effect of LSD. 

Microdosing is so popular now that folks like Paul Austin, founder of The Third Wave, make a living off of it. Austin sells a “premium microdosing course” for $147 and makes people pay him a lot more for one-on-one microdosing consultation.

That’s all swell, but there’s a problem: there’s like no science behind it.

Not a shred of evidence beyond anecdotal reports justifies Austin’s claims that microdosing yields “acceleration of learning ability, easier access to flow states, and an improved sense of total presence.” This capitalizing on an unproven practice, coupled with the fact that Austin looks like a Bond villain, has made him quite the controversial figure — but that’s for another article down the road.

It’s not that scientists don’t want to study it. It’s that word-of-mouth reports won’t get you funding, especially with the hulking propaganda-induced stigma still towering over LSD. The guardians of the iron gates of illegality suggest it’s not only possible but highly-likely that people’s preexisting positive sentiments about LSD — since anyone microdosing has likely macrodosed — creates a placebo response, prepping their minds to expect — and create — positive outcomes. 

So in light of Silicon Valley, Jimmy Fadiman, and creepy Paul Austin (half of whose staff recently quit on him, by the way), we’re still left to wonder, Is microdosing anything more than placebo?

A New Study Seeks To Answer Just That!

A new, joint research effort on LSD microdosing has pioneered an innovative “self-blinding” design. The basic idea is that rather than getting people into the clinic, volunteer participants set-up their own placebo control — hence the name “self-blinding”. 

The research was initialized by Dr. Balazs Szigeti and David Erritzoe from Imperial College London, and the collaboration includes renowned scientists David Nutt and Robin Carhart-Harris. They’re being supported by The Beckley Foundation, nonprofit UK-based psychedelic-advocacy group led by psychedelic living-legend Amanda Fielding. 

The study is open to anyone who wishes to participate.

The idea originated with Dr. Szigeti. Szigeti first became interested in drug science while working on his PhD in Computational Neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh. He heard Rick Doblin, founder of MAPS, speak at an event in Amsterdam, and Szigeti found Doblin “so inspirational that I wanted to do more in this area,” inciting an interest to research the burgeoning realm of microdosing.

But he quickly realized the struggle to get funding.

“Doing experiments with Schedule 1 substances is very difficult from an administrative point of view,” Szigeti said, speaking to Rooster. “I realized no one would give me the money, so I had to do something more creative.”

That creativity led to this self-blinding study. 

How The Study Works

The study costs less than $10,000 to run. That’s possible because a) Szigeti is not getting a paycheck (three cheers for selfless giving!) and b) participants use their own apparatus and supply. if they provided it, the study could cost millions.

Participants follow a detailed protocol to create a “self-blinding” apparatus. In short, you set a microdosing schedule, place microdoses in opaque pills, seal them alongside barcodes in four envelopes, place empty pills in four other barcode-containing envelopes, mix them all up, and choose four of the eight envelopes to use over the course of four weeks. 

It takes about 45-minutes to set up, and it costs less than 20 bucks. This video takes you through the setup process step-by-step. 

Each week, you scan the barcodes with your smartphone, allowing the researchers to track which envelopes contain microdoses and which contain placebos. Each week, you complete a series of brain games and questionnaires, the latter of which challenges you to guess whether you are experiencing a week of microdoses or placebos. 

The brain games and questionnaires delineate between two main effects the anecdotal reports point toward: cognitive enhancement, and increased well-being. Szigeti is more confident in the well-being side, stating, “It well could be the case that microdosing is more effective than placebo in making you feel better without helping you cognitively to stay more focused.” 

He sees real-world potential in this well-being side. “We are sitting in the middle of a mental health epidemic,” Szigeti said, “and if it turns out microdosing could really help with increasing well-being, that would potentially open up the way for microdosing to become a new sort of antidepressant.”

However, he emphasized multiple times this hypothesis is “far-fetched at this point.” 

The study has its drawbacks. The researchers can control neither the quality nor the dose. So, Billy Bubblehead with his synthetic stuff from his boy Q-Tip might get all janky in the head, and his results will reflect that, despite that those results don’t reflect microdosing in general. 

That’s just the nature of the current territory, and it’s why the study isn’t aiming to clarify efficacious doses. 

“What we hope to do,” Szigeti said, “is to collect data, go to the science-funding agencies to show them that we pushed the research as far as we could, and then ask for funding.” 

This study occupies a middle-ground between anecdotal reports and a clinical trial, which appears to be the only way to get any funding behind big bad LSD. 

And you can participate!

The more people that participate, the stronger the data will be to justify funding for research. 

Don’t have LSD? Only mushrooms? No problem! As of February of 2019, the study is open to plant-based and mushroom microdoses as well. 

If you’re already microdosing and know it works, why not help out? The only con is that you might have placebo weeks, meaning you won’t feel it that week, which is a bummer since we both know it’s definitely not placebo.

My personal results in the study suggest microdosing is more than mere placebo. I took doses of 10-12 micrograms — a pretty standard “sub-perceptual” dose. I guessed correctly 75% of the time. 

I won’t hear about my well-being results until the study is completed. So I’ll go ahead and offer another anecdotal report. Before I did the study, I was wrapped in anxiety, unemployed, trying to further a freelance career without seeing much hope in it and feeling like a total piece of shit. Now, three months after starting microdosing, I have a new job, set a sales record in my first month, wrote an article that was shared hundreds of percent times more than anything I’d previously written (also in part about LSD), and generally feel good about where my life is going. 

SSRIs have always left me dull and bored. LSD microdosing leaves me confident, and enthused, and creative. I feel drawn to eat healthier. I feel stronger and more mobile in my body. I am less likely to isolate myself. 

Part of me fears unforeseen consequences down the road. I am unsure whether that is intuition or slippery propaganda. Regardless, in the midst of some challenging existential times, it’s proving a far better option than anything else I’ve tried. 

What is the future of microdosing? Too hazy to say. But this study paves a potential route forward to help struggling people in numerous new ways. And maybe more qualified, less creepy people will fill in the roles that Austin’s currently dominating.