Right: This is your brain on drugs (LSD). Left: This is your brain not on drugs.
Josh heard all the buzz about Silicon Valley coders and young entrepreneurs who took tiny doses of LSD to boost productivity and spark creativity. But the 32-year-old was drawn to the psychedelic drug for another reason: the possibility that it could lift the fog of his depression, if only temporarily.
Josh, who asked to withhold his last name due to the illegal nature of microdosing, said he turned to Reddit for answers.
The website was filled with tips and testimonials of people who tried around 10 micrograms of LSD — an illegal narcotic — and had either positive experiences, found it didn’t work, or reported mild side effects. Although there are risks, nobody said they had wild or dangerous hallucinations, which are common with larger doses of mind-altering chemicals.
"I’ve been living with depression and anxiety for about half my life now," Josh said. "The fact that this was only a minute amount of [LSD], it seemed like a good way of trying something out."
Josh said it wasn’t too hard to secure liquid LSD from "a friend of a friend" in his New England town. He’s microdosed five times since March, in addition to taking his regular anti-depressants.
"I start most days off in a low mood," he said. But with microdosing, "It felt like I’d had a really, really good cup of coffee, without my heart beating and the crash later." The tiny amounts of LSD gave him momentum. "I sat up and felt like, ‘I should do something right now,’ and I had the energy to go and do it," he said.
"I sat up and felt like, ‘I should do something right now,’ and I had the energy to go and do it," he said.
After decades underground, illegal psychedelics like LSD are steadily slipping into mainstream culture as stigma fades, and early evidence suggests they might offer more than just a recreational escape.
Two concurrent studies at New York University and Johns Hopkins University found that psilocybin — a key compound in hallucinogenic mushrooms — can help ease existential depression in people with life-threatening cancer, specifically when taken in a controlled setting and combined with therapy.
Last fall, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said researchers could move forward with a large-scale clinical trial for ecstasy-related therapy with patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
Yet scientists haven’t formally explored the purported benefits of microdosing with LSD. All reporting to date is purely anecdotal, speculative, and subjective.
However, that may be about to change.
On Tuesday, the crowdfunding organization Fundamental launched a new campaign to support the first scientific study of microdosing with LSD.
The Beckley Foundation and Imperial College London will conduct the study, which is set to begin this fall. The trial will involve 20 participants and use brain-imaging technologies to study subjects’ neural activity and blood flow during a series of tasks, including playing the strategy game Go while inside an fMRI machine.
The search for proof
Fundamental, which supports psychedelic research for therapeutic purposes, aims to raise a combined $2 million for four studies: the microdosing research, plus the next stages of three ongoing studies, including looking at how psilocybin may impact end-of-life distress at NYU and Johns Hopkins; ecstasy and PTSD at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies; and psilocybin-assisted treatment of nicotine and alcohol dependence at Johns Hopkins and the University of New Mexico.
"A lot of people are experimenting with microdosing, but we need the science to investigate how it works compared with a fuller dose of LSD, and how it works on mood and depression and anxiety," said Amanda Feilding, director of the Beckley Foundation.
Image: William Rafti
An artist’s illustration of 900 LSD squares, replete with ruby slippers and a yellow brick road.
"We’re also interested in researching its propensity to stimulate creativity, productivity, and cognitive functioning," Feilding said.
The Beckley/Imperial Research Program previously studied brain activity using higher doses of LSD — 75 micrograms, or more than seven times larger than a true microdose. The 2016 study found that during hallucinations, "the whole of the brain was lit up with communications between dozens of [neural] centers, which were normally not active in that way," Feilding said. "It was like a great unity of the brain."
Researchers hope that studying these substances will help them figure out whether psychedelics have medical benefits under certain conditions, and thus shouldn’t be listed as Schedule 1 narcotics in the U.S. or worldwide. Importantly, studies can also reveal whether these substances cause any lingering harm to physical or mental health.
Such research is difficult to fund, mainly because psychedelics are banned and considered dangerous, but also due to a lack of interest from big pharmaceutical companies.
DIY psychedelic studies
Microdosing in a carefully controlled study isn’t the same as taking psychedelics on your own terms. Critics of the practice note that ingesting illegal and unregulated drugs is inherently fraught with risks, beyond just jail time.
"Manufacture and supply of illegal drugs are not subject to rigorous regulatory controls. That means users can never be sure of what they are getting," three scientists from the University of Cambridge — Barbara Sahakian, Camilla d’Angelo, and George Savulich — noted in a February post for The Conversation.
Uncertainty with supply "makes determining the dose problematic. Those who microdose incorrectly risk having unwanted, full-blown trips or even experience unpleasant trips," they wrote.
James Fadiman, who is considered a pioneer of microdosing research, said such trips are rare with microdosing, since participants start with extremely low doses. Fadiman has developed a self-study protocol for curious citizen scientists who want to document their experiences. The monthlong regimen involves alternating one day of microdosing — defined as 8 to 15 micrograms — with two days of rest.
Fadiman has studied microdosing since 2010, but he said interest in self-directed research has soared considerably in recent months, thanks in part to Ayelet Waldman’s 2016 book A Really Good Day. A 52-year-old attorney and mother of four children, Waldman helped push microdosing even further into the mainstream after using LSD following Fadiman’s protocol.
In February, Fadiman and his co-investigator Sophia Korb launched an online form where people can submit their written results. The site warns visitors "DO NOT ASK US" about where to find the illicit substances. (Along with LSD, participants can also self-report with microdoses of psilocybin, the herbal brew ayahuasca, and the hallucinogenic rainforest plant iboga.)
More than 1,400 people have enlisted in the homespun research effort so far. Fadiman and Korb are just beginning to analyze the first few hundred submissions, which they recently presented at an April summit in California that brought together more than 100 clinical researchers and thousands of psychedelics proponents.
Early results suggest that microdosing can be beneficial to everybody except anxiety sufferers, though people with both depression and anxiety reported positive results, Fadiman said.
"People with anxiety, they become more aware of their inner process, and their inner process is filled with anxiety, so they become more anxious," he said. Still, he added, "there are no angles or snakes that devour you, and there’s no great insight or mystical experience."
Many people who reported beneficial experiences said they unconsciously adopted healthier lifestyle habits. They drank less alcohol, smoked fewer cigarettes, got a good night’s sleep, and ate less fast food — though certainly not everyone experienced these effects, or did them all at once.
"One of the things we’re looking at is the risk-to-benefit ratio," Fadiman added. "It looks like the risks are very small in microdosing, and when people do have a bad experience, they stop. It’s a little bit as if you eat some food and don’t feel that good afterward. You just stop eating that food."
Josh, the 32-year-old in New England, said that microdosing didn’t give him a burst of musical genius like he’d secretly hoped. But it did help him shed some of the nervousness he feels at the start of each day or before doing a new task. That feeling has stayed with him, like a kind of afterglow.
"I’m not looking for a high, I’m not even looking for a revelation," he said. "I just want to be focused and be a productive member of society."