A study on rats offers the first biological evidence that small doses of hallucinogenic drugs could have therapeutic benefits.
In a lab setting, meanwhile, these effects have hardly been studied. Microdosing straddles a line between homeopathic remedy and experimental biohacking as a promising tool that hasn’t yet made its way through the clinical system’s rigorous checks and balances. Now a new study published Monday in the journal ACS Chemical Neuroscience provides the first biological evidence that psychedelic microdosing could have unique therapeutic effects that differ from the effects of a full dose.
For David Olson, a professor in the chemistry and neuroscience departments at the University of California at Davis and one of the paper’s authors, it started with ketamine. Over the past few years, Olson watched as the formerly notorious anesthetic cum party drug was rebranded as an experimental miracle for treatment-resistant depression. Ketamine has the ability to rebuild fraying connections between brain cells integral to networks that regulate emotions and mood, thanks to an effect known as neural plasticity. Olson suspected that the process by which ketamine promotes this type of plasticity could be activated by other substances as well, and in June his team published a paper showing that in rats, psychedelics such as LSD, ecstasy, and dimethyltryptamin, or DMT, mirror ketamine’s effects.
Noah Sweat, a program coordinator at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s School of Public Health, claims that the specter of this politicization continues to influence psychedelics research. “People now that are in positions of authority, either over departments that would be researching [psychedelics] or over the grant-awarding processes, might not have any sort of political objection to the research, but just have kind of absorbed the ambient cultural attitude toward them,” he says.
Olson hopes that by experimentally adjusting different elements of the study, he can figure out a safe way to determine the boundaries of microdosing’s benefits and harms. One factor he’s especially interested in looking into is age, which he says can greatly limit the degree to which a boost in neural plasticity is helpful. Microdosing “during neurodevelopment could be really, really bad,” Olson explains. “On the other hand, the aging brain is a little more susceptible to issues of cytotoxicity, and so that also could be very, very bad. There could be only a very narrow window of time in which they might work.”
Maybe microdosing is the perfect answer for treatment-resistant depression between the ages of 30 and 40, but harmful at any other age. The idea that a tiny psychedelic dose could damage the same brain structures that a full dose reinforces feels counterintuitive, but might be something committed microdosers should consider. So much of what is understood about how various substances work presumes a sort of graded spectrum of effects. Could microdosing, which we still know so little about, be an exception to the rule?
“There’s that saying,” Olson says, “that the difference between a medicine and a poison is the dose.”