Story at a glance
- Psychedelic drugs are being studied for their mental health benefits.
- Microdosing, when people are given very small amounts, may help with anxiety and improve mood.
- A new study suggests that taking a placebo may work just as well.
Some species of mushrooms can give people psychedelic experiences if ingested. Psychedelic drugs may have a reputation as a recreational tool, but they also have health benefits.
Studies have shown that low doses, or microdosing, of psychedelic drugs may help with anxiety, depression, mood improvement and overall mental well-being. Some studies and experts also suggest that people without mental health needs may benefit from microdosing.
In a new microdosing study published in eLife Sciences, researchers tried to “self-blind” the participants. In a regular random controlled trial, some participants would get a placebo for the entire period while another group would get the treatment. In this self-blinding study, participants were given some capsules that contained a microdose of psychedelic mushrooms and some capsules that were meant to be a placebo.
They asked participants to try to guess after each dose whether they ingested the drug or the placebo. The team found that sometimes people would be good at guessing, which could mess with the results.
The experts wanted to find out if getting a placebo gave people a positive outcome, meaning that they felt better and less anxious, etc. But if the participants know that they got a placebo, that may change their expectations and reduce the effect.
The researchers also ran into issues because they didn’t have a perfect placebo. They started off with sugar or other fillers. But since some individuals would get mushroom burps, they started using non-psychedelic mushrooms.
Despite all the issues, the researchers think that they did find an effect.
“The benefits are real,” says lead author Balázs Szigeti, a neuroscientist at Imperial College London, to Science. “But they are not caused by the pharmacological effects of microdosing.”
While some participants may have felt the benefits because they guessed correctly when they got a microdose and when they got a placebo, the researchers think that the “anecdotal benefits of microdosing can be explained by the placebo effect.”
Another potential caveat is that the participants chose their own regime and dose schedule. The participants were also already microdosing, so they may already believe in the benefits of the practice, skewing their expectations.
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