Psychedelics: Risks and benefits of microdosing revealed

Mental Health
New research, published in the journal ACS Chemical Neuroscience, finds both potential benefits and risks of using psychedelic microdosing to treat mental health problems. The study reveals effects on cognitive skills and sociability, as well as metabolic and neuronal consequences.
magic mushrooms on table in bags and in a bowl
Previous research has shown that magic mushrooms can alleviate hard-to-treat depression.

An emerging body of research is making a case for using psychedelic drugs to treat mental health issues.

For instance, two studies published last year showed that psilocybin, the active psychedelic compound in magic mushrooms, alleviated symptoms of treatment-resistant depression.

Moreover, the psilocybin did so without causing any side effects of conventional antidepressants. Such side effects typically include emotional blunting or apathy.

Another study looked at the potential of the Amazonian plant mixture Ayahuasca to treat depression and alcohol use disorder. Ayahuasca “may be a safe and promising treatment” for these mental health problems, concluded the researchers.

People who use psychedelics to improve their mental health and boost their overall well-being tend to do so with a technique called microdosing. Taking microdoses of a psychedelic drug means taking only a fraction of a dose that is required to have a full-blown psychedelic experience, or “trip.”

Until now, no studies had examined the effects of microdosing on animal behavior. But new research investigates the effects of the hallucinogen N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) on male and female rodents in an attempt to discover its effects on mental and physical health.

The lead researcher is David Olson, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the departments of Chemistry and Biochemistry and Molecular Medicine at the University of California, Davis.

Positive effects of DMT microdosing

The researchers chose DMT because the compound can be found in Ayahuasca, and its molecular structure is analogous to that of other microdosing drugs, such as LSD and psilocybin.

Olson and colleagues gave the rats 1 milligram/kilogram of body weight, which is a tenth of the dose that would be necessary to induce a hallucinogenic experience in the rodents.

The rats took this dose once every 3 days for a period of 2 months. In the 2 days between the doses, the researchers tested the rats’ mood and cognitive function.

The scientists found that DMT helped the rodents overcome their fears in a test used to model anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Another common test examines the effectiveness of antidepressants by measuring the rodents’ “freezing” behavior. This is a widely accepted method of assessing the degree of fear in rodents.

Researchers believe that the less a rodent freezes in response to a threat and the more mobile they are, the more effective the antidepressants are.

In the present study, DMT microdosing led to less immobility in the rodents. Cognitive and sociability tests, on the other hand, did not reveal any effects of DMT.

Side effects on neuronal growth, metabolism

The researchers also noted some side effects. Male rats gained a significant amount of weight after the treatment. Additionally, female rats developed neuronal atrophy.

The researchers explain that the latter results contradict those of previous studies that the team had conducted. These earlier findings showed that a single acute dose of DMT had the opposite effect — it boosted neuronal growth.

Such conflicting results may suggest that an acute dose of psychedelic substances affects the brain differently from intermittent microdoses.

Side effects notwithstanding, say the authors, the current results are promising because they suggest that researchers can separate the psychedelic effects from the therapeutic ones.

“Our study demonstrates that psychedelics can produce beneficial behavioral effects without drastically altering perception, which is a critical step towards producing viable medicines inspired by these compounds,” says Olson.

“Prior to our study, essentially nothing was known about the effects of psychedelic microdosing on animal behaviors,” explains the lead researcher.

This is the first time anyone has demonstrated in animals that psychedelic microdosing might actually have some beneficial effects, particularly for depression or anxiety. It’s exciting, but the potentially adverse changes in neuronal structure and metabolism that we observe emphasize the need for additional studies.”

David Olson, Ph.D.

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