Small ‘Microdoses’ of Psychedelic Drugs Could Treat Depression and Anxiety

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Lava lamps, tambourines and, of course, psychedelic drugs were hallmarks of the 1960s. Psychedelic drugs can make people euphoric, though users can also become extremely anxious and agitated. But that’s at a high dose. Now, in ACS Chemical Neuroscience, researchers report one of the first peer-reviewed studies on a new “microdose” psychedelic treatment regimen. In rats, the treatment appears to relieve anxiety and depression without the typical negative effects of the drugs.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 6.7 percent of U.S. adults have had at least one major depressive episode, and about 19 percent have had an anxiety disorder in the past year. Medications for these conditions can be slow to work, and many people don’t get better after taking them. Anecdotal reports have recently surfaced suggesting that low doses of psychedelic drugs given on a chronic, intermittent schedule could relieve depression and anxiety in humans without the hallucinogenic high. But although this regimen is becoming popular, it hasn’t been rigorously studied or proven to work. So, David E. Olson and colleagues wanted to test the method scientifically in the laboratory.

The researchers treated male and female rats with low doses of N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a psychedelic drug that gained fame decades ago for its use in certain South American religious rituals. Rats received DMT every third day for about two months and were put through various tests. The regimen had anti-depressant and anti-anxiety effects on treated rats without negatively affecting their memories or social behaviors. There were a few sex-specific differences, with male DMT-treated rats gaining a lot of weight, and female DMT-treated rats having changes in their neurons compared to controls. More work needs to be done, but the researchers say that the results give them “cautious optimism” about microdosing as a method for alleviating symptoms of depression and anxiety.

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