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Microdoses of magic mushrooms, a placebo? A first clinical study is looking into it

Natasha Kumar By Natasha Kumar Dec10,2023

Microdoses of magic mushrooms, a placebo? A first clinical study is looking into it

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A clinical study on the effects of microdoses of magic mushrooms on depression is underway at the University of Toronto, a world first. (Archives)


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In recent years, testimonies from patients and professionals have abounded: hallucinogenic drugs can have beneficial effects and can, among other things, help in the fight against depression. Placebo effect or real benefits?

No clinical study has yet been completed on the subject. However, clinical trials have recently begun at the University of Toronto, a world first. This aims to understand if these drugs have a real effect.

For Andrina Stan, the question doesn't even arise. Microdosing saved my life, she says.

Despite this, some experts worry that Canadians could fall into the trap of self-medication.

For his part, the director of clinical trials, Dr. Rotem Petranker, says that the mood of several of his patients has improved over the course of the clinical trials, but he recalls that he still does not know who took a placebo and who really took a microdose of magic mushrooms.

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Microdosing psychedelics consists of taking small sub-hallucinogenic doses of lysergic acid diethylamide [LSD, Editor's note] or mushrooms containing psilocybin, we read in a study by Dr. Petranker published in 2022. p>

Ms. Stan, 35, has a degree in psychology from the University of Toronto. She explains that she has had mental health problems in the past. She believes it was psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient found in magic mushrooms, that helped her change her life.

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Andrina Stan says consuming microdoses of magic mushrooms benefits her mental health.

One ​​evening in December 2020, I was lying in the middle of my living room, curled up in a ball, she explains. I was thinking about suicide.

Ms Stan says she tried different therapies, but nothing really helped until she discovered magic mushrooms – the production, possession and sale of which are illegal in Canada without special authorization.

I'm not sure I'd still be alive without microdosing, she says.

< p class="StyledBodyHtmlParagraph-sc-48221190-4 hnvfyV">Ms. Stan has been microdosing psilocybin for three years.

She says she is aware that using the substance can pose health risks, and the decision to microdose is not something she took lightly.

< p class="StyledBodyHtmlParagraph-sc-48221190-4 hnvfyV">I think there's a bit of a craze for psychedelics, and I know a lot of people, especially people my age, think that's what it's like. “It's just a fun [drug] to take,” she said. I don't think it's something one should just pick up and try.

Ms. Stan says microdosing magic mushrooms allowed her to work on her issues. [The drug] slowly brings the pain up so you can deal with it safely, she describes.

Although this anecdote is very positive , there is no scientific consensus on the effects of microdoses of this drug.

That's why Dr. Petranker is leading the first clinical trials investigating the effects of microdosing psilocybin on major depressive disorder.

The eight-week trial has 20 participants, each with clinical depression. Once a week, they receive a microdose of psilocybin or a placebo, then Dr. Petranker and his team give them a series of tests to determine if their mood has improved.

Since this is a world first, he does not expect to obtain definitive results. We take this very seriously, because we are laying the foundations for research that we hope will last for decades to come, he explains. We need solid foundations.

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Rotem Petranker holds a bottle of the placebo tablets that are used in clinical trials at the University of Toronto.

This is a small study conducted over a short period of time and has not yet been peer-reviewed. Additionally, he explains that due to the low dose used, many participants cannot tell whether they took psilocybin or a placebo.

Dr. Petranker also doesn't know who took psilocybin and who got a placebo. Despite everything, he allows himself some preliminary observations.

I've seen people get better. Many people are doing much better.

Some people had trouble getting out of bed in the morning or even keeping a job. At the end of the trial, they no longer met criteria for major depressive disorder. So this is a very significant change.

Despite everything, a doubt remains: is it the placebo effect?

Placebo : substance neutral devoid of pharmacological activity […].

Source : the Little Robert of the French language, 2023

As they do not know what they have taken, but they come with many expectations and hopes, it is possible that these hopes and the fact that they come in the lab and feeling like they're doing something for themselves affects their depression in a very profound way, says Dr. Petranker.

So this could be the placebo effect in action.

To be sure, Dr. Petranker specifies that the clinical trial would have to be extended by six months and recruited 20 to 30 additional participants. The trial was funded by the University of Toronto, but Dr. Petranker believes additional funding would be needed to continue it.

This research is important because people are already microdosing en masse, says the researcher.

According to senior research assistant Zeina Beidas, microdosing is so trendy right now that many people in the general public simply believe that such a practice will have immediate positive effects.

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Zeina Beidas is the principal research assistant for the psilocybin microdosing clinical trial.

Today, everyone thinks that microdosing helps with depression, but in reality, there has been no systematic controlled research. […] Science is therefore far from keeping up with real practices. It is extremely important to determine whether microdosing is effective and safe.

Increasingly in Canada, health stores magic mushrooms are set up on the street alongside cafes and clothing boutiques.

This is the case of Mush Luv, which has had a branch since April 2023 in downtown Toronto. The company has a second branch in the Queen City and plans to open a third soon.

Since Mush Luv sells illegal drugs, the employee interviewed uses a pseudonym: Bezo West. He says the store has customers from all walks of life.

It could be a construction worker, an office worker in finance, an elderly couple, a businessman , of a cleaning lady…

Mr. West says much of the demand comes from people who say they're looking for help with mental health issues.

I've seen so many people, personally, come in and say, "Oh, I'm on antidepressants. I don't want to take it anymore, it doesn't work for me anymore. I prefer to take mushrooms rather than antidepressants" .

Although the establishment was not searched, police filed charges against similar dispensaries nationwide.

Mr. West is zen with this fact. I feel like I'm doing a bit of God's work, he said. Helping people find the path that suits them. You know, that makes me really happy.

He doesn't think psilocybin should be illegal. He believes that every Canadian should have the right to safe, equitable and regulated access to this drug.

I sincerely believe that psilocybin will get closer to cannabis. We are in the middle of this process. So we're living in very interesting times, says Mr. West.

Dr. Ishrat Husain is a psychiatrist at CAMH, an addiction and mental health treatment center in Toronto. He has been studying psilocybin for several years as a potential treatment for certain mental disorders.

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Dr. Ishrat Husein says hallucinogenic mushrooms are a powerful drug.

He is aware of the popularity of microdosing magic mushrooms and the lack of scientific data supporting the practice.

According to him, there is no evidence of the benefits of microdosing.

Dr Husain believes that one must be careful if x27;one gets psilocybin because he points out that it's impossible to know where the mushrooms come from or how potent they are.

People who self-medicate with psychedelic drugs like psilocybin can actually harm their mental health, he warns.

I work at CAMH emergency department. Anecdotally, I see young people in particular coming in after using powerful hallucinogenic drugs like psilocybin, which leads to very, very negative mental health consequences, like psychotic episodes.

Dr. Husain says he's also worried about the effects of microdosing.

Although in theory the risk may be lower with lower doses of the drug, we simply don't know if this is the case. case, because there have not been studies of people with mental health problems taking microdoses of these substances.

Ms. Stan continues to use psilocybin, but she urges people considering microdosing to do so safely.

You have to be informed. And you definitely need to talk to professionals before, during and after. It's not something you can joke about or do for fun.

< em>With reporting from CBC's Nick Purdon and Leonardo Palleja

Natasha Kumar

By Natasha Kumar

Natasha Kumar has been a reporter on the news desk since 2018. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining The Times Hub, Natasha Kumar worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my 1-800-268-7116

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