Rats seem less anxious after microdosing psychedelics, research finds

5 Mar 2019

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Research from UC Davis suggests that taking small doses of psychedelics can allay depression and anxiety – but it also revealed some negative side effects.

Can microdosing psychedelics make you less anxious? Apparently yes, according to research released by scientists at the University of California (UC) Davis. Yet before you stick on the Grateful Dead’s discography and prepare to blur the edges of your perception, you may want to hear about some of the less desirable side effects.

The group of California researchers decided to investigate anecdotal reports about the myriad benefits of microdosing – in other words, self-administering sub-threshold amounts of psychedelics such as LSD and psilocybin. The study, led by UC Davis assistant professor David Olson, concluded that the practice can have a positive impact on anxiety levels.

Male and female rats were microdosed with DMT, a psychedelic compound found in ayahuasca tea. DMT’s molecular structure is embedded within the structure of LSD and psilocybin. Researchers administered one-tenth of the estimated hallucinogenic dose in rats (1mg per kg of body weight) every third day for two months. Two weeks into their treatment, rats were put through their (tiny) paces with a battery of behavioural tests relevant to mood, anxiety and cognitive function. Tests were completed during the two-day break between doses.

Olson’s group found that microdosing helped rats overcome a “fear response” in a test considered to be a model of anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder on humans. The researchers also documented indications that microdosing had an anti-depressant effect. The tests failed to establish any cognitive impairments or improvements, differing from human anecdotal reports.

“Prior to our study, essentially nothing was known about the effects of psychedelic microdosing on animal behaviours,” Olson explained.

“Our study demonstrates that psychedelics can produce beneficial behavioural effects without drastically altering perception, which is a critical step towards producing viable medicines inspired by these compounds …  This is the first time anyone has demonstrated in animals that psychedelic microdosing might actually have some beneficial effects.”

Adverse reactions

Olson was quick to stress that more research is needed to gain a better understanding of the effects of microdosing on the brain. As well as the host of positive results, the team noted some potential risks to the practice.

The dosing regimen significantly increased the body weight in male rats. As well as this, and something that was “unexpected” by scientists, it caused neuronal atrophy (the loss of neurons) in female rats.

The latter was particularly surprising for Olson’s group, which previously reported that rats treated with a single high dose of DMT showed “increased neuronal growth”.

Despite these potential adverse effects however, the scientists still maintain that the findings prove it is possible to “decouple the hallucinogenic effects from the therapeutic properties of these compounds”.

Eva Short was a journalist at Silicon Republic