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Psychedelic microdosing investigated for pharmacological effect on the brain

ABC News logo ABC News 29/07/2021
a close up of a cake: Microdosing involves taking small doses of psychedelics like MDMA. (Unsplash: Sharon Mccutcheon) © Provided by ABC News Microdosing involves taking small doses of psychedelics like MDMA. (Unsplash: Sharon Mccutcheon)

For years, Joey McGeorge struggled to cope with anxiety and depression.

Hoping to relieve some of her symptoms, the 42-year-old began exploring the use of psychedelic substances.

"I've had many GPs that have suggested antidepressants and I was always not keen," Ms McGeorge said.

In 2015, she started microdosing with psilocybin, commonly known as magic mushrooms.

Microdosing involves regularly taking small doses of psychedelics like MDMA or psilocybin over a period of weeks or months.

MDMA and psilocybin are classified as prohibited drugs by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA).

"I'd heard about psilocybin being able to retrain the pathways of the brain," she said.

"It's quite profound the effect that they've had on me … it does elevate mood and I feel a lot lighter."

Psychedelic microdosing is a practice that has gained popularity in recent years, with reported effects including improved mood, cognition and creativity.

But research shows it can also have negative impacts, with some users reporting increased neuroticism.

Researchers at Macquarie University will put these claims to the test in one of the world's first neuroimaging studies which will investigate the impact of low doses of psilocybin on the brain.

How the study will work

Macquarie University researchers aim to recruit around 80 people who microdose with psilocybin to see if reports of performance enhancement and improved mental health will show up in brain scans.

Vince Polito is a Macquarie University cognitive psychologist and says people who microdose often take one-tenth or less of a typical recreational dose (for a dried magic mushroom that is about 0.1 – 0.2 grams).

"The doses are so small that people certainly don't feel high in the way that they would taking a recreational dose," Dr Polito told ABC Radio Sydney.

"It's a completely different ballpark to the stereotypical association of taking a psychedelic."

Dr Polito said previous research relied on users self-reporting the impact of microdosing, which raised some questions.

"There's a bit of debate in the literature and amongst researchers about how much of what's happening when people microdose is just some kind of pharmacological effect, and how much is due to people's expectations or a placebo effect," he said.

"We're going to use neuroimaging brain scans to see if we can find any neural markers or neural signatures that show some effect of microdosing.

"By focusing on these objective sorts of measures we'll be able to say fairly clearly whether there is evidence that microdosing is doing something or not."

Participants will attend a series of lab sessions that will assess the impact of the drug.

The future of psychedelics

The Global Drug Survey 2020 found more people are turning to psychedelics to self-treat mental illness and emotional distress, with LSD, MDMA and magic mushrooms most common.

But in Australia, the TGA does not recognise MDMA and psilocybin as legitimate medicines to treat psychiatric conditions.

Earlier this year, it rejected an application seeking to have the two prohibited drugs rescheduled as controlled medicines in Australia.

Dr Polito believes this position could change with research progressing rapidly and $15 million in federal government funding allocated to supporting clinical trials into psychedelic use for mental health treatment.

"The government recently launched a grant scheme that is providing pretty significant amounts of funding to support future psychedelic research," he said.

"It seems very likely that regulations are going to change and that these substances are going to be an important part of the future of psychiatry and psychology."

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