According to Amanda Feilding, the founder and director of the UK-based nonprofit Beckley Foundation, one tenth of a full dose of LSD is enough to make her feel “sparkly.”
Feilding has spent decades collaborating with scientists around the world to better understand how psychedelic drugs like LSD, ayahuasca, and magic mushrooms affect the brain. She told Business Insider that she experimented with microdosing, or taking tiny doses of psychedelics, in the 1960s as an attempt to increase her creativity and productivity — what she refers to as “sparkle.”
Nearly 60 years later, the practice has emerged as Silicon Valley’s favourite illegal drug habit, with engineers, programmers, writers, and artists sharing their stories of microdosing. Many people say the practice improves their concentration or creativity; others, like writer Ayelet Waldman, claim it can treat symptoms of mental illnesses like depression and anxiety.
But no existing study has looked into the science behind microdosing — a gap Feilding and a team of scientists and fundraisers hope to fill with a new study set to start later this year.
In that upcoming experiment, 20 participants will be studied over the course of four “study days.” Each day, the volunteers will get one of four possible doses of LSD — 0, 10, 20, or 50 micrograms — then do a series of tasks, answer questions, and have their brains scanned. Each test is designed to see how the drugs affect people’s creative and cognitive abilities. The researchers also hope to learn whether microdosing affects communication within and between brain networks the same way a full dose of psychedelics has been found to do.
“We want to look to see if we see those changes in cerebral circulation and connectivity and hopefully things like the ‘aha!’ moment that comes with creativity as well,” Feilding said, adding that they might have initial results as early as the end of the year.
For the study, which will cost £300,000 or roughly $US385,000, Feilding will collaborate with London Imperial College psychopharmacologist David Nutt.
“It’s a study I’ve wanted to do for 30 years,” Feilding said. “I’m very interested in that level of [potential] cognitive enhancement which isn’t a full-blown psychedelic state but is a lift in productivity and cognition and amusement or thinking further than one usually does.”
What to know about microdosing
Existing research on psychedelics has been promising so far, but is still in early stages. Most studies focus on “trip treatment” — essentially giving someone a “full” dose of psychedelics so that they trip or hallucinate. Patients in these studies have said the experience was overwhelmingly positive; many describe the trip as one of the most important experiences of their lives.
Psychedelic microdosing differs from a “trip treatment” in that it involves taking tiny amounts of a psychedelic drug several times over a few days, rather than a single, full dose. Whereas participants were injected with 75 micrograms of LSD in one study, for example, microdosers report taking about 10 micrograms (roughly one-fifth to one-tenth of a standard recreational dose) once every four days.
These levels are intended to be “sub-perceptual,” NYU psychiatrist Stephen Ross told Business Insider. In other words , they’re too small to cause a trip, but large enough to potential affect thinking and creativity.
Ross and fellow NYU researcher Michael Bogenshutz are involved in a series of LSD trials that are currently in preliminary phases. He refers to microdosing today as almost a fad.
“People are like, ‘Yeah microdosing!’ But in reality there is not a single controlled trial ever on this yet. So whether it’s helpful or hurtful we don’t know,” he said.
Another issue with the recent rise in microdosing is that it can be difficult to verify whether the LSD is actually causing the effects that people report and, more importantly, whether the drugs are safe.
“I do think society would be greatly served by us as a group getting to know more about psychedelics and hopefully working out a regulatory system so people can make use of them in the safest possible way,” Fielding said.
The brain during a psychedelic trip
Scientists can’t say for sure what goes on in the brain after a full dose of psychedelics is taken, or precisely why it appears to produce such profound, life-altering experiences.
What they do know, Fielding’s collaborator David Nutt told Business Insider in January, is that in a psychedelic trip, “the normal hubs which control and regulate brain function become disrupted. There’s much greater connectivity — parts of the brain that rarely talk to each other … talk to each other.”
During a psychedelic trip, certain brain circuits are subdued while others get ramped up. The circuit that connects the parahippocampus and the retrosplenial cortex — a network thought to play a role in our sense of self, or ego — appears to be subdued during a trip. And deflating the ego seems to make people feel more connected to the people and environment around them.
“The normal sense of self is broken down and replaced by a sense of reconnection with themselves, others, and the natural world,” Robin Carhart-Harris, who conducted the first study that took images of a brain on an LSD trip, said at a conference in 2013.
Nutt said the brain might see increased connectivity with lower doses of LSD too, though “to a lesser extent.”
But what really happens with a microdose — or several — remains to be seen.
“There’s a lot of hype about a ‘revolution’ in psychiatry, and I actually think it will radically change psychiatry,” Ross said. “But we really have to do a bigger trial and see what the data shows us.”