Diving Deep: Exploring the Uncharted Waters of Microdosing

Second-year Psychology students participating in the University Honours College follow a workshop on Blogging Science, in which they learn to communicate science to the general public, by means of informing, giving an opinion, and relating issues in science to issues in society. This year a selection of these written blog posts is published on Mindwise. Today’s post is by Noa Schwensfeier.

‘You don’t feel high, just… better.’ ‘It gives me an alertness, an assurance. I move from a place of anxiety to a normal state of confidence, not overconfidence.’ ‘I felt unusually alive. Lights looked sparkly. I felt delighted. I enjoyed playing with the kids more.’

The common subject of these testimonies is a form of drug use called ‘microdosing’. This kind of drug use refers to taking sub-threshold doses of drugs such as LSD and psilocybin – low enough to prevent typical psychedelic visual or perceptual distortions. Despite the low dose, proponents state they experience wide-ranging positive effects on mental health, vitality, creativity, productivity, social ability, and general wellbeing due to microdosing. Social networks such as Reddit even have platforms dedicated specifically to microdosing.

Only benefits?

When we consider these apparent benefits of microdosing, we might wonder why our GPs and therapists have not yet given us these magical pills. One problem is the legal situation. In the USA and EU, LSD and psilocybin are classified as Schedule I drugs: ‘drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse’ [1][2] and are therefore illegal. Online, however, people struggle to understand why a substance that has helped them out of their crippling mental health issues is still prohibited: ‘It would be much safer if it was legal, so you could openly seek expert advice. I’ve taken antidepressants with lists of side-effects as long as my arm. Now I’m taking something with no known side-effects and it’s working.’

However, there may be good reasons for keeping such substances under lock and key for now. For starters, there is not much research on the topic. The few microdosing studies that have been conducted are often not transparent or have methodological flaws. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, to deduct clear statements about the risks and benefits of microdosing.

Studies about microdosing

In a recent study, Fadiman and Korb [3] claim to have found mostly positive results, that is, around 80 percent of users supposedly indicated positive or neutral experiences with microdosing. The authors report on a study with two stages. Stage one used a sample based on self-selection of experienced microdosers, recruited from a website, and asked participants to report their experiences. There is a fundamental flaw associated with this method of sampling: Those who sign up for an online study might be systematically different from those who do not. In the case of Fadiman and Korb’s study [3], for example, only those who actively searched for ‘microdosing’ online could find the website and consider participating. Moreover, those that ultimately decided to participate might have been those with the most extreme experiences. Users who had unusually positive or negative experiences might have been more likely to share their experiences than those who noticed no or only slight changes after microdosing.

Additional flaws of this stage of the study regard a lack of experimental control. Experimental control refers to changing only one variable, the experimental or independent variable, while holding all other variables constant, so that any change in outcome can be attributed to the change in the experimental variable. However, the authors do not offer any insight into their data analysis or based on which criteria they evaluated participants’ testimonies. This lack of transparence, combined with the methodological flaws, makes it almost impossible to draw conclusions from this study.

Stage two of the study was more formalized, as participants were asked to stick to a protocol in which they were supposed to microdose every three days for a month. Before the study, demographics, prior physical health, and prior mental health status were assessed, and a daily assessment of positive and negative emotions was implemented. The study was still based on self-selection, however, and actively encouraged individuals to engage in a ‘microdose self-study’ that was not supervised by physical or mental health professionals. Moreover, the study stated no clear research questions and hypotheses, and again, no quantitative analysis of results was offered. Future studies need to overcome such flaws of methodology, ethics, and transparency in order to provide valuable insights in the issue of microdosing.

A study by Prochazkova and colleagues [4] is also hampered by methodological flaws. The authors tested short-term effects of microdosing on creativity and problem solving and found that it improved out-of-the-box thinking as well as for convergent solution generation, that is, finding one right solution to a problem. The study used a between-subjects design, in which each participant is measured before and once after the intervention, that is, the microdose. Again, however, no placebo or control group was used. Therefore, it is not clear whether the improvement from the first to the second measurement was due to the microdose, learning, or a placebo effect. Moreover, participants were recruited during an event organized by the Dutch Psychedelic Society, constituting an unrepresentative sample, as those who visit such events are likely to be experienced with microdosing or have strong beliefs or expectations about it, which might influence the outcomes of the study. Again, such limitations do not allow any conclusions about the effects of microdosing.

Other studies do not show such obvious design flaws, but still do not allow the establishment of a causal link between microdosing and positive outcomes.

Other studies do not show such obvious design flaws, but still do not allow the establishment of a causal link between microdosing and positive outcomes. For example, Anderson and colleagues [5] conducted a correlational survey study and reported lower scores on dysfunctional attitudes and negative emotionality, and higher scores on wisdom, open-mindedness, and creativity on average for regular microdosers. It might well be, however, that those who show the personality characteristics mentioned above are more likely to start microdosing in the first place. The study by Anderson et al. is thus no evidence that microdosing changed the users’ personalities.

In addition to research with human participants, research on microdosing is being conducted with animals. Although results from animal studies do not automatically translate to implications for humans, animal research is usually the first step when investigating unknown effects of some kind of drug. In one of those animal studies with rodents, single LSD doses have been shown to increase neuroplasticity, while intermittent doses have not been found to do so [6]. Actually, Cameron et al. found increased neural atrophy in female and weight gain in male rats following microdosing, which clearly emphasizes possible risks.

Science, internet platforms, and the general public

While the scientific community should be able to recognize the limitations of such studies, the general public usually is not. As a consequence, internet platforms regularly advertise ‘groundbreaking scientific findings’ that prescribe great life-enhancing abilities to microdosing. As discussed, most of these studies are plagued by methodological limitations that do not allow definite conclusions. A study without these methodological limitations, found reductions in reported levels of depression and stress, lower levels of distractibility, and increased absorption [7]. However, they found no support for the more general and spectacular beliefs about microdosing that are spread over the internet, such as that it increases creativity, mindfulness, and well-being. What follows is that the personal experiences in line with these general beliefs, which are shared on online platforms, are unrepresentative of scientific findings. Clearly, the evidence for beneficial effects of microdosing is, at best, controversial. However, readers of online forums are likely to fall prey to confirmation biases. Confirmation biases refer to the tendency of humans to give more weight to information that is in line with their own beliefs while information challenging these beliefs is ignored, downplayed, or simply overlooked. Therefore, individuals researching the benefits of microdosing are very likely to only regard such information that support their expectations and beliefs.

To conclude, while microdosing might hold many exciting opportunities for treatment of mood and anxiety disorders, more methodologically sound research is needed on the risks and benefits of using microdosing for the sake of self-enhancement. Microdosing rapidly gains in popularity and an increasing amount of people share their personal experiences on the internet. To reach the audience that shows interest in this topic and to spread more scientifically sound information, researchers need to learn to communicate at the audience’s wave length.

Relevant links and publications

[1] DEA Diversion. (n.d.) Controlled Substances – Alphabetical Order. [PDF file].

[2] European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. (2012). Legal Topic Overviews: Classification of Controlled Drugs.

[3] Fadiman, J., & Korb, S. (2019). Might microdosing psychedelics be safe and beneficial? An initial exploration. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 51(2), 118-122. https://doi-org.proxy-ub.rug.nl/10.1080/02791072.2019.1593561

[4] Prochazkova, L., Lippelt, D. P., Colzato, L. S., Kuchar, M., Sjoerds, Z., & Hommel, B. (2018). Exploring the effect of microdosing psychedelics on creativity in an open-label natural setting. Psychopharmacology, 235(12), 3401-3413.

[5] Anderson, T., Petranker, R., Rosenbaum, D., Weissman, C. R., Dinh-Williams, L., Hui, K., Hapke, E., & Farb, N. A. S. (2019). Microdosing psychedelics: personality, mental health, and creativity differences in microdosers.  Psychopharmacology, 236(2), 731-740. https://doi-org.proxy-ub.rug.nl/10.1007/s00213-018-5106-2

[6] Cameron, L. P., Benson, C. J., DeFelice, B. C., Fiehn, O., & Olson, D. E. (2019). Chronic, Intermittent Microdoses of the Psychedelic N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) Produce Positive Effects on Mood and Anxiety in Rodents. ACS Chemical Neuroscience, 10(7), 3261-3270. doi: 10.1021/acschemneuro.8b00692

[7] Polito, V., Stevenson, R., J. (2019) A systematic study of microdosing psychedelics. PLoS ONE, 14(2). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0211023

Garlick, H. (2019). ‘It makes me enjoy playing with the kids’: is microdosing mushrooms going mainstream? Guardian.


Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay.

Noa is a third-year Honours College student in the Bachelor Programme of Psychology and is interested in neuropsychological topics with clinical application and neurosciences in the broadest sense. Moreover, she finds the public perception of what constitutes good science and research very interesting, as public views of what is worthwhile science and evidence may be quite different from what scientists consider convincing. She would like to work as a science-practitioner in the future.

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