Humans have cultivated a complicated relationship with DMT, labeling it as both a dangerous drug and “the spirit molecule.” Now, a growing body of evidence shows that mammals’ brains may manufacture significant amounts of DMT all on their own, indicating that we may be even more intimately tied to the molecule than we thought.
DMT, short for N,N-dimethyltryptamine, is one of the main active compounds in ayahuasca, a psychoactive brew that has been used in religious rituals in Ecuador, Columbia, Peru, and Brazil for hundreds of years. More recently, the molecule has become the focus of ongoing research on mood and post-traumatic stress disorder treatments. New evidence suggests that not only do human brains respond to DMT but that they may even produce it.
In a paper published Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports, a team of scientists at the University of Michigan shows that the mammal brain has the tools it needs to manufacture DMT. The evidence that the mammal brain is capable of making its own DMT is “very strong in rats and humans,” the study’s corresponding author Jimo Borjigin, Ph.D., tells Inverse.
Do We Produce Endogenous DMT?
The idea that mammal brains produce endogenous DMT can be traced to Rick Strassman, M.D. As a clinical psychiatrist at the University of New Mexico, Strassman ran a series of experiments in the 1990s that led to his book (and later documentary) DMT: The Spirit Molecule, in which he proposed that DMT can be naturally secreted by the brain’s pineal gland in high enough quantities to induce mystical experiences.
In her new work, Borjigin argues there’s evidence we do indeed produce enough DMT to be biologically relevant.
“DMT is naturally made and released in mammalian brains at the levels sufficient to contribute to brain functions,” she says. The key, though, is that she believes it’s not only the pineal gland that’s responsible for DMT manufacturing.
In this paper, Borjigin and her team describe the results of an experiment in which they induced cardiac arrest in rats and then measured the levels of two chemicals involved in the synthesis of DMT. The researchers also examined brain tissues from human cadavers for these chemicals. They note that the human brains contained one of them, while the rat brains contained two of the enzymes that are required to make DMT, not only in the pineal gland, but also in the cerebral cortex and the hippocampus. Unlike Strassman’s work suggests, she believes that it’s probably not the pineal gland driving DMT synthesis in rat brains.
“DMT synthesis was thought to take place outside of the brain, but we show the presence of DMT synthetic enzymes in the brain; in fact our data suggest DMT production is most likely from non-pineal cells of the brain,” she explains.
DMT and the Near Death Experience
Armed with the idea that the brain has the tools it needs to manufacture DMT, Borjigin also set out to investigate one of Strassman’s bigger claims: that DMT has strong ties to the psychological experiences that accompany death, or close brushes with it. Her work was done in mice, but there has been recent, ongoing work that focuses on humans.
"DMT is naturally made and released in mammalian brains at the levels sufficient to contribute to brain functions."
What we do know is that when humans are injected with DMT it can induce out-of-body sensations. One human study illustrating that effect was released in August 2018 in Frontiers in Psychology. That paper found that people who received DMT injections had experiences that bore strong similarities to those reported by people who had actual near death experiences, including the sensation of transcending their body.
One participant described the sensation as a feeling that the body “doesn’t feel relevant anymore.”
Borjigin’s paper is primarily a rat study, so there are no anecdotal accounts of transcendence. But she did note that some rats showed surges in the levels of DMT in their brains when they experienced cardiac arrest, which was induced by the researchers as part of the experiment. Crucially, this happened even in rats whose pineal gland had been removed.
“DMT rises in a subset of rats during cardiac arrest, but not in all rats,” she notes, suggesting the need for further study to figure out why only some expressed the molecule.
It’s a long way to connect the dots between human experiences of death and a spike in DMT in the brains of rats experiencing heart failure. Borjigin’s work is intended to push the needle a bit further along on an idea that once seemed outlandish: Rat brains, at least, have all the tools to manufacture DMT on their own, though it’s still a mystery as to what actually happens once the process gets going.
Abstract: N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a psychedelic compound identified endogenously in mammals, is biosynthesized by aromatic-L-amino acid decarboxylase (AADC) and indolethylamine-N-methyltransferase (INMT). Whether DMT is biosynthesized in the mammalian brain is unknown. We investigated brain expression of INMT transcript in rats and humans, co-expression of INMT and AADC mRNA in rat brain and periphery, and brain concentrations of DMT in rats. INMT transcripts were identified in the cerebral cortex, pineal gland, and choroid plexus of both rats and humans via in situ hybridization. Notably, INMT mRNA was colocalized with AADC transcript in rat brain tissues, in contrast to rat peripheral tissues where there existed little overlapping expression of INMT with AADC transcripts. Additionally, extracellular concentrations of DMT in the cerebral cortex of normal behaving rats, with or without the pineal gland, were similar to those of canonical monoamine neurotransmitters including serotonin. A significant increase of DMT levels in the rat visual cortex was observed following induction of experimental cardiac arrest, a finding independent of an intact pineal gland. These results show for the first time that the rat brain is capable of synthesizing and releasing DMT at concentrations comparable to known monoamine neurotransmitters and raise the possibility that this phenomenon may occur similarly in human brains.