Anxiety is a modern epidemic. Officially it affects around one in four New Zealanders – but talk to anyone who works in our schools and universities and they will tell you the problem is far bigger than that. Young people are suffering and mental health services are struggling to help. Last year, one US study showed the percentage of 18-to-26-year-olds suffering from an anxiety disorder had doubled since 2008. And it seems that women are far more likely to experience psychological distress than men.
What if there was a new therapy for anxiety – non-invasive, no side effects, you’d barely even know you were on it except you felt calmer? What if that same treatment could work for depression and posttraumatic stress disorder, support the mental health of cancer patients, help in palliative care, control addiction, maybe even boost everyday mood and enhance work performance? Many people believe this potent remedy already exists – it is called microdosing and currently, it is against the law.
Microdosing involves taking tiny amounts of illegal psychedelic drugs such as LSD or magic mushrooms, at about a tenth of the usual dose – potentially all that is required to make changes in the brain.
It first took off in Silicon Valley where microdosing is one way high performing professionals are trying to give themselves an edge in a competitive business. They believe it boosts creativity and focus, increases productivity, improves sleep and helps them manage stress. Despite its illegality, the practice is now becoming more widespread.
IN THE LABORATORY
It may sound like microdosing is the latest and greatest life hack, but so far there isn’t much solid scientific evidence to back it up, only a lot of chatter. The man who may be set to change that is Dr Suresh Muthukumaraswamy at Auckland University. He has spent his career looking at how various therapies affect brain activity and this year will embark on a world-first study to see if microdosing really is as effective as enthusiasts claim. It has taken a long time to get the ethics approval and funding needed, but partly thanks to a large donation from Silicon Valley, the project is set to go. Dr Suresh says that while there are many interesting claims about the benefits of microdosing, the few laboratory studies so far haven’t found any positive results. This may be due to the placebo effect – people believe a drug is going to work and so it seems to – but there is another possible explanation.
“Laboratory studies are tremendously boring,” Dr Suresh explains. “You come into a sterile environment, take the dose and then you’re monitored, probed and prodded for six hours. It’s not a good reflection of what is happening when people take a microdose of LSD, then go out and engage with the world, do their job, live their life. If this drug is a platform that enhances experience, then perhaps you need to have an experience.”
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