Conference Coverage

Psilocybin research is mind expanding

Microdosing tied to enhanced divergent thinking in the short term



– A single dose of psilocybin taken in a supportive social setting was associated with demonstrably enhanced empathy, creative thinking, and subjective well-being lasting for up to 7 days in an observational study, Kim P.C. Kuypers, PhD, reported at the annual congress of the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology.

ECNP mood shot Bruce Jancin/MDedge News

The participants in this uncontrolled study were healthy individuals curious to experience psilocybin in a controlled environment, but the observed benefits are of special interest because of psilocybin’s potential role in the treatment of psychiatric disorders, including depression and PTSD, in which preliminary study results have been quite encouraging, observed Dr. Kuypers, a neuropsychologist at Maastricht (the Netherlands) University.

For example, hallmarks of depression include psychological inflexibility, negative thoughts, and disturbed empathy. As this study showed, psilocybin addresses all those issues, she said.

“When a depressed person says, ‘I’m bad; everything is negative,’ this person should be helped to be able to think outside the box, and we showed that this is possible if you use this drug,” according to Dr. Kuypers.

She and her coinvestigators studied 55 participants at a psilocybin retreat. These are events sprouting up across Europe to accommodate people who are curious about psilocybin and interested in trying it in a supportive setting. The investigators administered structured tests of convergent and divergent thinking, emotional empathy, and satisfaction with life before participants ingested the so-called magic mushroom, the morning after, and again 7 days later. In the Netherlands, the above-ground portion of the plant is an illegal substance, but the underground stem is not. The average dose was 27 mg, slightly higher than is often used in controlled laboratory studies; however, there were no adverse events.

The results showed that divergent thinking was enhanced the morning after taking psilocybin, an effect that was not sustained at the 7-day mark. In contrast, convergent thinking, emotional empathy, and a satisfaction-with-life scores above baseline were maintained 7 days after ingestion.

Psilocybin is a 5-HT2A agonist. It is considered a classic psychedelic, as are LSD, mescaline, and ayahuasca. These agents are often used recreationally to broaden consciousness, for relaxation, and to amplify emotions. Cave paintings indicate that psilocybin has been used medicinally for 11,000 years. But even early hunter-gatherers could not possibly have envisioned the current phenomenon of psilocybin microdosing to enhance work performance as adopted by hard-driving Silicon Valley professionals and similarly motivated strivers elsewhere around the world.

Microdosing for enhanced performance

Microdosing of psychedelics, especially psilocybin and LSD, is the practice of taking a low dose – typically 1/10th of a full recreational dose, which is too small an amount to cause full-blown perceptual alterations – once every several days in order to stimulate productivity. Psychedelic microdosing has garnered considerable mass media attention as an increasingly popular practice among younger professionals in the fields of computer science, engineering, mathematics, and technology. But it hasn’t been subjected to much scientific scrutiny.

Dr. Kuypers and colleagues wanted to find out whether it is actually effective and whether there are negative effects. They conducted an online questionnaire survey during a 5-month period of 2018 that drew 1,116 respondents, 80% of whom were currently microdosing, while the other 20% were former microdosers who had stopped completely.

The most common motivation for microdosing was indeed to stimulate productivity through increased focus, energy, and creativity. Almost half of microdosers indicated that they designed their own dosing schedule – typically once every 2-4 days – and two-thirds of microdosers were oblivious as to the consumed dose.

The most common reasons that respondents stopped microdosing were negative experiences or loss of interest because of lack of efficacy. The negative experiences typically involved acute anxiety or other psychological symptoms limited to when they were under the influence (Int J Neuropsychopharmacol. 2019 Jul 1;22[7]:426-34).

A subset of survey respondents microdosed to alleviate symptoms of a physician-diagnosed mental or physical health disorder. They were the focus of a separate analysis.


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