Psychedelic Placebos: Study Watches People Trip on Fake Drugs

April 1, 2020

During a debriefing at the end of the experiment the unwitting subjects were asked a variety of questions about their experiences. Over 60 percent of the subjects reported feeling some kind of psychedelic drug effect.

A new study from scientists at McGill University has gone to extraordinary lengths to investigate how strong the placebo effect may be in psychedelic research. The experiment, led by a former magician turned psychiatry PhD candidate, created a fictional psychedelic drug and staged a fake party, to explore exactly how much of a psychedelic experience can be generated without administering a psychoactive drug.

The genesis of this new research grew out of an interesting observation. Most modern psychedelic science tends to report minimal effects in placebo control groups, yet in naturalistic settings many people frequently discuss the concept of “contact highs.”

This is unsurprising from one perspective, given the extreme psychoactive effect of psychedelic drugs, most subjects in a control group during a clinical trial would quickly know if they had received an inactive placebo. To overcome this problem many psychedelic researchers incorporate active placebos in trials. This usually includes drugs such as niacin or ritalin, offering some kind of felt psychoactive sensation in the hope subjects don’t immediately conclude they have been given a non-psychedelic substance.

Still, despite the use of active placebos, the McGill University team suspected psychedelic placebo effects could be obscured by medical settings. The long-held anecdotal experience of a “contact high” suggests strong psychedelic-like sensations can be generated in people without consuming psychoactive drugs. But this effect has never been experimentally quantified.

To test exactly how significant the placebo effect may be in the context of psychedelic drugs, a unique experiment was designed. The researchers created a naturalistic party environment, and recruited a cohort of subjects who thought they were participating in a study investigating the effects of psychedelic drugs on creativity.

Lead author on the study Jay Olson, leveraged his former career as a magician to construct an elaborate scenario using a number of psychological and environmental tricks to amplify any potential psychedelic placebo effect.

A room was set up to resemble a party environment, with video projections, ambient music, cushions and snacks. The participants were told the environment was designed to test the effects of psychedelic drugs on creativity in a natural environment. However, to obscure the fact no actual drugs were being administered, the researchers amplified security procedures, giving the impression of serious scientific legitimacy.

The researchers created a fictional psychedelic drug called iprocin, to make sure any pre-existing notions around the effect of drugs such as LSD or psilocybin couldn’t influence the subjects’ responses.

“The experimenter explained that iprocin was a fast acting and legal drug similar to psychedelic mushrooms,” the researchers write in the study. “Its effects start quickly, within 15 min, peak in 1 to 2 h, then quickly fade. We told participants that they would stay in the room until the effects had worn off, but that these would unlikely persist beyond the 4-h study.”

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