Earlier this year, over 1500 volunteers from 59 countries took small doses of LSD—a drug colloquially known as acid—or other psychedelics for an entire month. It was an unprecedented science experiment in terms of its scope, subject matter, and total absence of an ethical review board. But if there is anyone qualified to run a study where volunteers take a potent and illicit psychedelic substance for a month straight, it would have to be James Fadiman.
The 78-year old Stanford-trained psychologist was first introduced to psychedelics in the form of mushrooms after graduating from Harvard. His guide for this experience was the famous psychedelic guru Ram Dass back when he was still a Harvard professor known as Richard Alpert. While a graduate student, Fadiman had his first encounter with a high dose of LSD while participating in an experiment at the International Foundation for Advanced Study in Menlo Park.
“That was the trip that transformed my worldview,” Fadiman told me on the phone. “I was in a living room with a male and female sitter, there was good audio—it was very similar to what is now considered standard psychedelic research protocol. They made me very comfortable with the feeling of transcendence and letting go of my identity.”
"What we can say is that microdosing appears to be incredibly safe and effective in a number of areas, particularly depression"
“That certainly colored my opinion of what psychedelics were good for,” Fadiman added. After receiving his PhD in psychology, Fadiman helped move LSD from the streets to the clinic by assisting with research on LSD and problem solving at the International Foundation for Advanced Study until the drug was federally banned in 1966.
The prohibition on LSD research ended up spanning the vast majority of Fadiman’s career as a psychologist. Still, Fadiman never lost interest—or hope—in the therapeutic potential of lysergic acid diethylamide.
Although the federal moratorium on LSD research is still in place, Fadiman has been working with a cadre of citizen scientists to study the effects of taking LSD and other psychedelics in such small quantities that the psychedelic effects are absent, but the mood and creativity enhancing effects are not—a practice known as microdosing. Fadiman said he became interested in microdosing after learning that Albert Hofmann, the first chemist to synthesize LSD in a laboratory, had made a habit of microdosing acid later in his life.
“In terms of alleviating human suffering, microdosing makes a lot more sense than high doses of LSD,” Fadiman said. Whereas a high dose of LSD would be 100 micrograms or more, microdosers typically don’t take more than 10 micrograms at a time.
According to Fadiman, the results of his unprecedented microdosing study have been promising.
“What we can say is that microdosing appears to be incredibly safe and effective in a number of areas, particularly depression,” Fadiman told me. “We now feel that we're very much ready to help conventional researchers do the next level of work.”
"I think it's criminal that people cannot get help when they're suffering if there is a safe and effective treatment available"
Fadiman has been recruiting individuals to partake in his microdosing study for nearly five years, but it’s only within the last year that his research became more formalized. Together with his colleague Sophia Korb, Fadiman created a survey that was given to oer 1500 volunteers (whom he refers to as “citizen scientists”) who agreed to microdose for a month in the name of science.
In February, these intrepid psychonauts microdosed LSD (and occasionally other psychedelics, such as psilocybin and ayahuasca) every four days and filled out a daily survey designed by Fadiman and Korb to gauge their mental and physical response to the drug. The psychedelics were self-supplied by the volunteers and the four-day cycle was prescribed by Fadiman on the basis that the effects of microdosing seem to last for two days, giving the volunteer a third break day to return to baseline moods.
As Fadiman detailed at a psychedelic science conference in San Francisco earlier this year, the volunteers mostly reported increases in feelings of alertness, energy, and determination, as well as a significant decrease in depression. Interestingly, those who reported having anxiety before the study said that microdosing LSD and other psychedelics actually increased their feelings of anxiety.
The results of Fadiman’s study weren’t just limited to mental health. Five colorblind volunteers also reported seeing tracers, which are glowing trails that follow moving objects typically experienced by people on psychedelics. It is the first time this reaction to microdosing has been observed. Moreover, a female subject who experienced debilitating menstrual pain her entire life reported having these pains completely abate while microdosing.
These are fascinating results, to be sure, but Fadiman’s research has been criticized on the basis of its methodology. Self-reported studies are a cornerstone of medical and psychological research, but they face a number of validity problems. For instance, a volunteer’s memory may be unreliable or willfully distorted.
Read More: Stop Policing Psychedelic Science
Although there are measures to offset these validity problems, such as making the study double blind, where neither Fadiman nor the volunteers would know who received LSD and who received a placebo, these control methods weren’t available to Fadiman given the illicit status of the substance being studied. Still, he was able to create something of a control group by having 200 volunteers who weren’t taking psychedelics complete the same survey given to the microdosers on a daily basis.
Fadiman is, of course, well aware of the limitations of his work on microdosing, but until LSD is legalized for clinical study, research on its potential therapeutic effects will necessarily be limited. This is why he characterizes his study as a “search,” rather than “research.”
“We’re really trying to map the space in which these subjects function,” Fadiman told me. “We’re finding that they affect areas that no one ever considered or even looked at.”
In this sense, Fadiman’s study is a unique, DIY approach to the so-called Psychedelic Renaissance. After 50 years of near total prohibition, psychedelic drugs are finally being studied as legitimate therapeutic substances thanks to the work of organizations like the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), John Hopkins University, and the Beckley Foundation, which have been working for decades to destigmatize psychedelic research.
Today, MAPS is undertaking phase 3 trials to turn MDMA into an FDA-approved treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. In 2015, the UK-based Beckley Foundation made history by performing the first brain scans of humans on LSD, and found that it may help treat alcoholism and depression. Around the same time, researchers at John Hopkins administered psilocybin (the psychoactive compound in mushrooms) to the terminally ill with overwhelmingly positive results.
Fadiman views his study as laying the groundwork for more formal research on microdosing in the future. Now, the main impediment to further research is overcoming psychedelics' significant social stigma and overturning their illegality. Still, Fadiman said he is already collaborating with universities in the US, Canada, and Holland to help them design clinical studies on microdosing.
“I think it's criminal that people cannot get help when they're suffering if there is a safe and effective treatment available,” Fadiman said. “I'm also interested in enhancing help, in having well people be better. Microdosing psychedelics opens up a whole new way of looking at general functioning.”
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Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Fadiman first took LSD at Leary's International Foundation for Internal Freedom. He actually first took LSD at the International Foundation for Advanced Study in Menlo Park. Moreover, Dass introduced Fadiman to psychedelics shortly after Fadiman graduated from Harvard, not while he was an undergraduate. Motherboard regrets the errors.