STORIES

Meet the Woman Behind the Largest Underground Microdosing Study Ever

By Daniel Oberhaus on December 17, 2018

In 2015, Rolling Stone published an article about the “hot new business trip” among technologists and venture capitalists in Silicon Valley: taking small amounts of LSD to boost creative thinking, a practice more commonly known as microdosing. The microdosing community takes such small amounts of LSD, psilocybin and other hallucinogens that they don’t feel the psychedelic effects, but claim that they still receive residual benefits such as improved performance at work and enhanced problem solving skills. 

In the last three years, microdosing has exploded into the mainstream, despite relatively little scientific evidence to suggest there is anything beneficial about taking small amounts of hallucinogens. In order to get a better idea of how microdosing psychedelics affects people, clinical psychologist Sophia Korb partnered with psychedelic researcher Jim Fadiman to conduct the largest underground study on microdosing in history. 

It is, in many ways, a perfect match. Fadiman has been researching LSD since the 1960s, but his pioneering research mostly focused on its high-dose effects in users, whereas Korb has a more traditional scientific background in psychology. About five years ago, Fadiman began posting on the internet asking people to send him descriptions of their experiences with microdosing, but these reports were so informal that it was hard to extract much meaningful data from them. 

Two years ago, Korb designed a more scientifically rigorous questionnaire to distribute to the online microdosing community. After releasing the study online, they ended up with thousands of respondents who detailed their experiences in microdosing psychedelics over the course of a month. In addition to reports of boosted creativity and alertness, Korb and Fadiman also learned that microdosing was helping people suffering from debilitating migraines and even intense menstrual pain. Many of the results from their study have never been reported in relation to LSD before.

At a time when research on LSD and other hallucinogens is nearly impossible due to federal restrictions on the substance, Korb and Fadiman’s independently funded study on microdosing is exposing the myriad potential health benefits of taking small amounts of hallucinogens. More research needs to be done in a clinical setting (after all, the participants in the study all had to source their own drugs from their own dealers), but it’s an important step toward understanding how hallucinogens affect both our body and our mind.

PRØHBTD spoke with Korb after she gave a presentation on the latest study results at Horizons, an annual conference on psychedelics in New York. 

You work in harm reduction. How did you get involved in microdosing research?

I am a clinical psychologist, and I did my two-year internship in New York City working with people with serious and persistent mental illness who were having problems with drug or alcohol abuse that were really chaotic and affecting their lives. After I finished my internship, I approached Jim [Fadiman] about doing freelance work with him, and he said, “Yeah, I got work.” So we started looking at microdosing at that point. It fits in pretty well with the types of harm reduction I had been working on, which were drugs that people consider harder. I think the same sorts of stigma apply either way. 

So you were working with Jim already in a freelance capacity?

We had been working on LSD in the past, but the other projects were high-dose projects. 

Was LSD or microdosing something you had thought about, or was this something you came to pretty new?

When I started working for Jim, I had never done psychedelics. I had not thought about doing psychedelics. It wasn't part of my life at all. I thought that the work of Stanislav Grof was really strong in holotropic breathing. I had read that the same sorts of experiences that people got through meditation and holotropic breathwork were similar to psychedelic experiences so that was my introduction to it. I started working for Jim doing data analysis and had to read hundreds of trip reports and realized that psychedelics might be something that I wanted to try, too. Then when I came back to work for him full time, I was less naive. 

Were you doing it in a microdosing capacity, or were you taking full doses? 

I started with full doses. I only tried microdosing when we started studying it. It had no discernible effect on my life, so I didn't continue trying it. 

Why do people microdose?

The inventor of LSD, Albert Hofmann, suggested to his students that taking a small dose of LSD might be helpful for a number of health conditions or just generally for health. Those students talked to more people and eventually talked to Jim. It had gotten around that there might be benefits to taking small doses. At the time Hofmann suggested that a small dose might be 25 or 20 micrograms. That was the basis people were going off. It turns out that that is way too much. Twenty micrograms is way too activating for people because LSD is a slight upper so it was making people feel hyper and anxious. We currently suggest that people start at 1/20th of a dose, so something like five micrograms might be more appropriate. 

Jim had been doing this study for five years, but once you guys started collaborating, you formalized the process. Can you explain how you made the microdosing study more scientific?

Before the microdosing study, Jim and I had been working on the Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide. We had looked at people's high-dose experiences, and we were looking for what determined what kind of experience someone had. One of the things we looked at was having a spiritual guide or a tripsitter there and various things about set and setting. What we discovered—which no one expected—was that the dosage of LSD made a very significant difference in people's experiences. Coming out of the Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide, we were looking more carefully at these lower-dose experiences where people had mistakenly taken too low of a dose. 

Over the years Jim said, if you try microdosing, why don't you write to me and let me know how it goes? These people sent Jim handwritten journal entries. When I started, I set up Google forms and more scientifically validated ways to measure variables we were interested in, as well as the variables that the participants themselves were interested in. The process for this whole microdosing experience was that the participants would choose the questions we were asking, and I'd help develop a scientifically valid way of answering those questions.

What were some of those variables that people were interested in?

A bunch of people microdosing suggested that maybe it was nootropic. Maybe it helped people with cognitive tasks. Many people do report that it helps them at work and [to avoid] procrastinating. So I said sure, why don't we look at it. I gave them a bunch of cognitive tests as they were microdosing.

Did microdosing help on those tests?

It didn’t make a difference on those cognitive tests. At the very basic levels of memory and reasoning, we don't see a difference in microdosing. 

Have you received any pushback or criticism from the traditional medical or scientific establishment?

I think all the criticisms the traditional scientific establishment would have are valid. I've thought about them a lot. I think the way our study is different is that it protects participants in a different way than the scientific establishment. If this were a randomized control trial, as happens with an institution, we wouldn't be able to maintain the type of ongoing relationship we have with our participants. I don't know if our results are going to replicate. What people will be studying is a hypothesis that our search sort of generated. So we were able to collect all this data. It's more like anthropology or different types of qualitative psychology research. We're just exploring a space, and other scientists are going to come and try to ask smaller and more precise questions and figure out if things are true under those conditions. 

So stuff like selection bias, obviously everyone in our study managed to find something that they thought was LSD. So that's a particular type of person. We also looked to communities where people were already microdosing. We advertised on places like Reddit r/drugnerds. We didn't necessarily want to encourage people who had never tried LSD to try LSD for the first time. It's entirely possible that the people who had helpful high-dose LSD experiences are also the people who will be helped by microdosing. If you had a randomized control trial of the entire population, that's not everyone. That's some portion of people. It doesn't matter. Those people will still be helped, but it's definitely something that might not replicate the same way in another study. 

Was your study purely looking at LSD? Or microdosing other substances as well?

We did it with 18 different substances, including all the “alphabetamines” like DOI. We didn't include cannabis and we didn't include MDMA because Jim feels those aren't traditional psychedelic substances. We also knew from the MDMA research through MAPS that low doses of MDMA cause panic attacks without euphoria. 

How many people participated in this study?

The original study has something like 8,000 data points. We left that form open and more and more people found it, even though we deleted the link to the form. People were giving it to their friends. If people wanted to send their data, we'd collect it. There was a journaling form, so if people microdose and want to write longform text about their experiences, they can also do that. 

Were there any results that really surprised you from your study?

People were saying they were microdosing Ibogaine and reducing the amount of methadone they were on. I knew methadone from working as a harm reduction counselor. That was a shocking thing. The menstrual disorder thing is also shocking. We started with eight, and I think it's now 12 women with different menstrual conditions who report that they microdose once per month, and it completely eliminates all their symptoms. I reached out to the menstrual researchers association to say we got these results, and they said the different menstrual disorders are separate categories. So it doesn't actually make sense to put them together. It's not all the same finding—it's all different findings. That's interesting in and of itself. We realized people taking estrogen were potentiating the effects of microdosing in their bodies, and people who were taking androgens reduced the effects of microdosing. It was interesting to find out that trans women might be getting more out of microdosing than trans men just because of the different hormones they were taking. 

What’s next for the microdosing study?

Right now we're going to be doing a follow up with everybody. The follow ups are going to be about particular medical problems that the medical community or pharmacological community has expressed interest in or that we've noticed had particularly strange results. For example, people with traumatic brain injury have reported getting better at a much faster rate if they microdose. So we were going to see who has a traumatic brain injury and if they'll answer some questions in particular about that. 

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