Scientists are testing the impact on brain function of small regular doses of LSD in what they say is a “renaissance” for psychedelic drugs.
In one of the first studies of its kind, Dutch researchers are testing whether ‘microdosing’ with the illegal drug enhances mental performance and mood.
Significantly, the doses are too low to induce hallucinations.
They hope their research could ultimately lead to new, more effective treatments for depression, anxiety and even chronic pain.
Jan Ramaekers, professor of psychopharmacology at Maastricht University, said positive anecdotal reports on social media warranted rigorous scientific assessment.
He told Sky News: “We are going through what people call a psychedelic renaissance and the time really has come now to take the psychedelic drugs into our laboratory and find out if there’s any therapeutic potential in using them.”
Sky News was given rare access to the Maastricht Psychedelic Research Programme at the university, which is being run in conjunction with the Beckley Foundation, a British think-tank that advocates evidence-based drug policy reform.
Volunteers are given placebo or microdoses of LSD to confirm whether the effect is real or all in the mind.
They are then put through a battery of cognitive ability tests.
Their pain tolerance is also assessed by timing how long they can keep their hand in iced water.
Nadia Hutten, one of the researchers, said: “The definition of microdosing is that you don’t feel it but it improves your mood and creativity.
“Such small doses can easily be a placebo effect because you’re not supposed to feel anything.
“We want to have a really proper experimental setting where we can see if we can back up what people report.”
Juliane Mueller, from London, isn’t part of the study but took microdoses of an LSD derivative called 1P-LSD before it was made illegal.
She had depression and took the drug every three days to change the pattern of her thinking. It worked, even on the days she wasn’t taking a dose.
“It’s similar to a cup of coffee, a cosmic cup of coffee.
“I felt more alert, more motivated. I had a brighter outlook to the day ahead.”
Juliane is now a conversational sex therapist at the Psychedelic Society, but used to work in marketing. She found microdosing helped her to juggle tasks.
“It helped my focus.
“Anti-depressants would take me away from myself and suppress something, whereas microdosing tuned me back into myself. I felt less overwhelmed.”
The volunteers in the Maastricht study are also having blood tests to see whether there is any biochemical evidence that new neurones are growing in their brains – in other worlds that they are rewiring.
Prof Ramaekers said: “So if you’re in a depressive state, you may fall back on rigid habitual thinking.
“You may have lost some of the flexibility that is really needed to cope with any day to day operations and treatment with psychedelics may actually bring this flexibility of your mind back.”
He added that psychedelics appear to be “much safer” than other medicines used to treat mental health problems.
Researchers elsewhere are also beginning to look at psychedelics.
Imperial College in London is running an online study in which participants are unaware whether they are taking placebo or a micro-dose of LSD.
Researchers at Imperial have also shown that psilocybin, the active compound in magic mushrooms, can treat severe depression.
Amanda Fielding started the Beckley Foundation in 1998 in the hope that scientific evidence could convince the authorities to ease restrictions on psychedelics.
“We desperately need them,” she said.
“We are heading fast into a mental health epidemic – suicide, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, dementias.
“(Psychedelics) are incredibly valuable gifts of the gods, of nature. We made a mistake criminalising them.”
Under UK law, LSD and other psychedelics are classified as class A drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Act.
The Home Office said: “We have no intention of changing the law to legalise illicit drugs.”