And how can researchers begin to utilise this psychedelic to enhance our wellbeing?
DMT (aka Dimethyltryptamine) is an hallucinogenic tryptamine drug that occurs naturally in many plants and animals. It can be found in plants all over the world, most specifically in South America in the Amazon basin. It is mixed with the ayahuasca vine to make the potent brew that is taken in ceremonies in South America.
Dr Rick Strassman’s ground breaking research between 1990–1995 studied the experiences of 60 people who were given DMT hundreds of times over the five year period. This research opened up an important dialogue about psychedelics and their therapeutic effects; a dialogue that had long been closed due to Nixon’s war on drugs. Dr Strassman wrote about his research in DMT: The Spirit Molecule. A large proportion of the participants claimed to have entered other realms, or seen complicated geometric patterns and had dialogue with strange entities.
“…And I looked around at my environment and I was trying to absorb everything, to understand, but there were all of these machines or structures or things that I had never seen before that I had no idea what they were, and I was like a caveman in a computer lab. I didn’t have any idea, but I knew in my intellectual awareness that this was a very advanced civilisation or life forms or whatever they were. That they were so far advanced from what we know here on earth.” Excerpt taken from The Spirit Molecule (The Movie) 2010 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fwZqVqbkyLM
“At that point it opened, and I was very much somewhere else. I believe it was at that point that I went out, into the universe — being, dancing with, a star system. I asked myself, “why am I doing this to myself?” And then there was, “This is what you’ve always been searching for. This is what all of you has always been searching for.” taken from: DMT The Spirit Molecule. Dr Rick Strassman
During the DMT experience, people were given a dose of DMT intravenously then closely observed by Strassman and a nurse. The whole experience lasted for 15–30 minutes. People who have taken DMT speak about leaving their physical bodies and entering into other realms. Time stops, they have no physical bodies and ethereal beings give life messages. For this reason it has also been suggested that when we are nearing death our brains release DMT and this is what we know as near death experiences; bright lights, tunnels, flying towards beings or God or leaving the body.
It is thought that DMT may be found in small traces in the brain in the pineal gland, (though this is still yet to be proven scientifically) in our blood and urine. DMT mimics the neurotransmitter, serotonin, as do LSD and psilocybin. The effects are due to its binding to the 5-HT2A receptors in our brains. The pineal gland in humans sense light, regulates pigmentation and is responsible for the production of melatonin. It is also referred to as the ‘third eye’ because of the connection with opening up our awareness and spiritual connections. The pineal gland can be activated through deep meditation to achieve a state of ego dissolution; this is also the experience of people who smoke DMT or drink the ayahuasca brew.
Traces of DMT has been found by archaeologists in Argentina in a pipe made of puma bone which dated back to 2130 BC. This means that the ritualistic use of DMT in South America dates back to at least 4000 years. In Ancient Egypt it is possible that DMT was also used and taken from the acacia tree aka as the tree of life. And if we look at ancient Egyptian paintings we can see similarities between the shape of the pineal gland and the Egyptian hieroglyph the Eye of Ramen, the Egyptian god of the sun.
There are theories to suggest that Moses may have communicated with God next to a burning acacia bush which would have released DMT in smoke form. These are just theories, but the point being is that historically DMT has been extracted from plants, used and has been given an honourable place in cultures everywhere. Throughout history the experiences have been depicted though art, sculptures, cave paintings and carvings.
There is currently research taking place at Imperial College, London by Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, head of the Imperial Centre for Psychedelic Research. The nature of the research is to further investigate the impact of psychedelics on mental health issues such as depression, PTSD and to discover how effective they are at treating these debilitating issues. At the moment research is inconclusive as to the efficacy of DMT, though there is suggestion from preliminary test scores that there is an increase in mood and lower depression scores.
Research using brain imaging, through The Beckley Foundation alongside Imperial College, shows that within the brain on DMT there is an increase in delta and theta waves, which are normally present during sleep, particularly when we dream. Research with ayahuasca has shown that ayahuasca reduces the control of a brain network called the default mode network. This is the part of the brain that is associated with our thoughts and ruminations about our selves. Reducing activity in this area of our brain can have positive therapeutic significance in addiction, OCD and trauma.
Administering any psychedelic for therapeutic research is usually done with a great deal of preparation for the participant. The drug will be administered in a therapeutic setting with usually one or two ‘sitters’ on hand for the entire duration of the experience. The participant will also be seen the day after for further therapeutic integration.
Psychologically speaking a short ‘trip’ on DMT might allow the participant to have some experience of ego dissolution; an expansiveness of consciousness. This re-wires entrenched thinking patterns (eg in the case of addiction there is rumination on obtaining and maintaining the addiction.) People who have taken ayahuasca (a longer trip of 6 or more hours) have reported that they have no longer needed to maintain there addictions or that they have found a breakthrough ‘cure’ for PTSD; something that might take years of therapy to achieve.
The question of what purpose the traces of DMT in our bodies serve, and why we have serotonin receptors that DMT binds to, still goes unanswered. This is cutting edge research and is hopeful for its therapeutic potential, but it feels like we are at the start of an important and exciting breakthrough.
“As far as we know it’s one particular serotonin receptor that’s key to how these drugs work in the brain. It’s a big curiosity and a question that is unanswered in science. What are these receptors for, and what do they do?” Robin- Carhart Harris from https://www.wired.co.uk/article/mapping-brain-dmt-psychedelic-drugs
Originally published 5th May 2020 on Medium.com