Positive expectations predict improved mental-health outcomes linked to psychedelic microdosing,
KAERTNER L.S., STEINBORN M.B., KETTNER H., SPRIGGS M.J., ROSEMAN L., BUCHBORN T., BALAET M., TIMMERMANN C., ERRITZOE D., CARHARDT-HARRIS R.L. :
Nature, 2021, 11, 1941
Doi : 1038/s41598-021-81446-7
Psychedelic microdosing describes the ingestion of near-threshold perceptible doses of classic psychedelic substances. Anecdotal reports and observational studies suggest that microdosing may promote positive mood and well-being, but recent placebo-controlled studies failed to find compelling evidence for this. The present study collected web-based mental health and related data using a prospective (before, during and after) design. Individuals planning a weekly microdosing regimen completed surveys at strategic timepoints, spanning a core four-week test period. Eightyone participants completed the primary study endpoint. Results revealed increased self-reported psychological well-being, emotional stability and reductions in state anxiety and depressive symptoms at the four-week primary endpoint, plus increases in psychological resilience, social connectedness, agreeableness, nature relatedness and aspects of psychological flexibility. However, positive expectancy scores at baseline predicted subsequent improvements in well-being, suggestive of a significant placebo response. This study highlights a role for positive expectancy in predicting positive outcomes following psychedelic microdosing and cautions against zealous inferences on its putative therapeutic value.
Classic tryptamine psychedelics are structurally related to the endogenous neurotransmitter serotonin (5-HT; 5-hydroxy-tryptamine) and induce their distinct psychological and physiological effects mainly through agonism of the 5-HT2A receptor1,2. In recent years, the phenomenon of psychedelic ‘microdosing’ has seen a significant rise in popularity and prevalence in western societies3–5. Generally, microdosing describes the frequent (e.g., near daily) intake of sub-threshold or threshold perceptible amounts of psychedelic substances. One of the most commonly described microdosing regimens involves dosing with a psychedelic every third or fourth day (e.g., 2 times per week) over a period of a few weeks6. Recommended and commonly used dose ranges lie between 5 and 20 μg of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), or 0.1–0.5 g of dried psilocybin containing mushrooms (e.g., psilocybe cubensis)6. However, there is no scientifically established definition on what microdosing entails or what constitutes a typical, or indeed effective, microdose7,8.
The growing popularity and media visibility of microdosing was brought into prominence by James Fadiman (2011), followed by expanding internet community interest9,10. The dominant motivation for microdosing appears to be a desire for positive changes in mood, or general well-being and cognitive enhancement, without acute subjective intoxication and associated behavioural disruption11–15. Microdosing is a quite different phenomenon to the single ‘full-dose’ administrations currently in clinical development16,17, where the typical protocol is to administer just one or two large doses (e.g., 25 mg) of psilocybin in guided clinical settings with careful context manipulation (e.g., participant screening and psychological support before, during and after the sessions), with the intention of engendering transformative psychological experiences and associated lasting improvements in mental health outcomes18,19. Important findings in this regard include evidence that just a few moderate to large doses of a psychedelic can produce enduring positive changes in outlook and behaviour in healthy volunteers18,20–23, as well as reduced psychiatric symptom severity in clinical populations17,24–29. Despite these positive findings, however, it is well known that high doses of psychedelics can induce psychologically challenging reactions including panic and/or psychotic states, particularly when the surrounding contextual conditions are adverse19,20,30–33. The increasing interest in microdosing in popular culture may have emerged as way of mitigating some of the perceived psychological challenges and risks associated with higher doses of psychedelics.
Anecdotal reports claim that sub-threshold/threshold perceptible psychedelic microdoses can have beneficial sub-acute effects on psychological functioning and well-being despite having negligible acute (subjective) psychoactivity6. Until now, the effects of microdosing have mainly been investigated using observational surveys11,13,14,34 and open-label studies35. While mindful of the methodological limitations of uncontrolled studies such as these, the findings are largely supportive of positive anecdotes regarding microdosing, i.e., results have largely found positive effects on mental-health outcomes 11,13,14,34 and cognition35. However, a general positive test strategy, and various components of confirmation bias—including visible demand characteristics, positive expectancy and self-selection—may combine to increase the likelihood and magnitude of positive outcomes. Tellingly, recent attempts at placebo-controlled studies on microdosing in healthy volunteers with double-blind drug administration have failed to find compelling evidence for beneficial effects of microdoses on cognition or mood, as compared with placebo36–38, and participants in these studies were able to detect subjective drug effects, thus jeopardising the effectiveness of the placebo control36–38. This is a common issue in drug studies, particularly when the relevant drugs have discernible subjective effects. Ineffective blinding may corrupt the rigour of placebo-controlled studies, and increase the risk of experimental biases39. Positive expectancy may be an important contributor to positive outcomes following psychedelic drug use and thus, an important source of bias.
Investigating placebo or ‘enhanced placebo’ effects (where drug effects positively interact with positive psychological expectations) in psychedelic microdosing studies is important40–43. Typically, placebos are interventions with no direct activity but serve to control for positive (or negative, i.e. ‘nocebo’44) expectations linked to particular interventions45. Placebo effects may affect various outcomes (e.g., subjective experiences, symptoms, behaviour or physiological responses)45 and can be modulated by multiple contextual and psychobiological mechanisms46, whereas expectations about a treatment are among the most important factors contributing to the placebo response46. Generally, it can be assumed that expectations in the microdosing sub-culture are positively biased, as has been found in previous research14. Positive media coverage of the topic have likely contributed to this cultural bias4,6,9,10,12 and this may impinge on outcomes from microdosing and thus, the results of studies such as the present one.
Due to the pragmatic challenges of doing so via an online observational study, the present study did not include a placebo control condition. We did, however, employ a prospective, naturalistic design that included baseline sampling of expectations about possible outcomes from the impending microdosing. Well-being, state anxiety and depressive symptom scores were measured weekly on five occasions (pre-dosing at baseline to week 4 of the microdosing regimen) in order to track time-dependent changes. Neuroticism/emotional stability was measured pre-dosing at baseline and post-dosing at week 4 only. It was predicted that well-being and emotional stability would be increased, and that depression and anxiety scores would be decreased, at the key-endpoint (4 weeks) compared with baseline. Capitalising on the nature of the prospective design, we also predicted that baseline positive expectations about microdosing would be related to any subsequent improvements in wellbeing, depressive symptoms and anxiety scores. Finally, exploratory analyses were performed to assess pre-post changes in a range of secondary psychological outcomes of interest.