Here’s an intriguing question: Why do our bodies, and those of other mammals, produce N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a potent psychedelic also found throughout the plant kingdom? The answer, perhaps disappointingly, is that we don’t know yet. According to the authors of a new review in the Journal of Psychopharmacology,1DMTThe raison d’être of ‘s, indeed whether or not it is relevant to mammalian physiology, is the subject of a 60-year-old debate that remains unresolved to this day.
Instead of repeating the whole story, which the authors claim began in 1961 with a statement in the journal Science that DMT could be the basis of a mental illness,2 let’s go to 2001. When Rick Strassman’s historical book DMT: The molecule of the spirit was published that year, DMT it was still a niche topic in a niche field. In 2001, only six articles in the entire peer-reviewed scientific literature mentioned the compound, five of which, including one co-authored by Strassman,3 they were concerned with research methods and pharmacology. (The sixth was an early and now widely cited study outside Europe of the subjective effects of the psychedelic brew ayahuasca, which contains DMT.4)
Strassman brought this up DMT generated in the pineal gland plays a key role in mystical and near-death experiences.
On the US side, Strassman’s studies in the 1990s of the peculiar and powerful effects of pure DMT administered intravenously to healthy human volunteers at the University of New Mexico represented the first government-approved research on psychedelic drugs in more than two decades. But even beyond that, his book, informed by these ground-breaking studies, ignited debate about the role of endogenous. DMT in humans proposing some rather provocative theories about the pineal gland, considered by some to be a “third eye” or seat of the soul.5
In particular, Strassman raised this DMT generated in the pineal gland: a tiny gland about the size of a grain of rice deep in the brain that produces melatonin, a structural analogue of DMT – plays a key role in mystical near-death experiences and the like. Many of the dozens of DMT The trips cataloged in Strassman’s studies include features also common to previously reported near-death experiences.
Second thoughts on a third eye
After the publication of DMT: The Spirit Molecule (and, later, the release of a documentary co-produced by Strassman and starring Joe Rogan), this line of thinking became “a hot topic of countercultural pseudoscience,” write the authors of the new review, both from Spain. ICEERS Foundation (International Center for Ethnobotanical Education, Research and Services). But then they proceed to throw cold water on Strassman’s theory by citing research led by another major figure in psychedelic science, David Nichols, who published a paper in 2018.6 “exposing the many difficulties that the pineal gland [would] must be faced to produce fully psychoactive amounts of DMT in the few seconds or minutes before death.”
Complicating matters further, the review authors also reference a 2019 study in Nature7 which documented a duplication of the extracellular DMT levels in rat visual cortex after experimentally induced cardiac arrest, with and without an intact pineal gland, suggesting a link between endogenous and stressful situations. DMTbut not the pineal gland.
Why else would this mysterious molecule be produced in the mammalian body at low levels? “This has been proposed DMT is a neurotransmitter, neuromodulator, and neurohormone, and serves a protective role in peripheral tissues,” the authors write, citing evidence for each from the 1970s and as recent as the 2010s. However, they add, again citing Nichols , “other authors argue that this is not likely DMT can play any natural role in concentrations [at which] has been detected.”
Ultimately, the review authors seem to be a little closer to Strassman than to Nichols. They conclude that it is “highly likely” that it is endogenous DMT it plays a role in some aspect of mammalian physiology – perhaps related to consciousness or dreams, they speculate – and they claim that “the time has come to prove it”.
current DMT research
Despite popular interest and a prolonged debate about the function of endogenous DMT, current research on the compound focuses on its use as a psychedelic drug, both as a component of ayahuasca and on its own, usually smoked or vaporized. But the two research objectives should not be separated. After all, it was the study of cannabis that led to the discovery (and naming) of endocannabinoids and the broader endocannabinoid system, which in turn continues to inform the use of cannabis and cannabinoids for therapeutic purposes.
Or, in another example the authors offer, opiates helped us better understand pain, which in turn may help us use opiates better. Likewise, they write, “our knowledge of psychedelic drugs will be substantially improved if we understand the natural mechanisms with which they interact.”
To take things a step further for both cannabis and DMTif the endogenous counterparts of Schedule 1 substances “are at the center of important aspects of being human,” they write, that is reason enough to reconsider our legal, political, and philosophical perspectives on these drugs.
Nate Seltenrich, a freelance science journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area, covers a wide range of topics including environmental health, neuroscience and pharmacology. Copyright, Project CBD. May not be reprinted without permission.