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Placebos and Psychedelics

A new study found that positive psychological effects associated with taking small doses of psychedelic drugs are likely the result of users' expectations. This study is the largest placebo-controlled experimental study on psychedelics to date. The study implemented an innovative “self-blinding citizen science approach” where participants in the general public got to choose their own placebo controls. These controls were given as microdoses, which are defined as small amounts of psychedelic drugs taken one to three times a week and are said to improve a person's overall well-being, mood, and cognitive performance. The lead author of the study and a research associate at Imperial College London, Balázs Szigeti says that the anecdotal reports of the benefits of microdosing on psychedelics are biased. The study consisted of 191 participants and each participant got randomly assigned placebo pills or microdosed ones. This process is called self-blinding and ensured that the participants did not know which pill they were taking. Throughout the study, participants filled out surveys about their experiences and also completed cognitive tests online over a four-week period.

The results of the experiment showed that the participants who were taking the real psychedelic drug and the placebo reported very similar psychological benefits, such as improvement in mood and cognitive performance. Researchers said that the results were mixed, meaning that they observed microdosing benefits in a wide range of psychological measures. They also observed equal psychological benefits in participants taking the placebos. Many of the participants who were taking the placebo were shocked to learn after the study was complete that they had not been taking any drugs at all. The author of the study emphasizes that the results of this experiment might not be as reliable as a traditional placebo-controlled study because participants might source their drug from the black market. However, a benefit to this study was that this type of study costs a fraction of what a traditional clinical study would. This study has shown that “self-blinding citizen science initiatives” are an inexpensive initial screening tool that can be used before conducting a more expensive clinical traditional study.

References: Balázs Szigeti, Laura Kartner, Allan Blemings, Fernando Rosas, Amanda Feilding, David J Nutt, Robin L Carhart-Harris, David Erritzoe. Self-blinding citizen science to explore psychedelic microdosing. eLife, 2021; 10 DOI: 10.7554/eLife.62878

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