DMT: “It’s like dreaming with your eyes open”

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Editor's note: This article is about N, N-DMT, one of the active principles of Ayahuasca, not to be confused with 5MEO-DMT or “toad medicine.”

Scientists have investigated the effects of one of the most powerful psychedelic substances known to man—and they found that it induces a state in the human brain akin to a vivid “waking-dream.”

DMT, or N, N-Dimethyltryptamine, is a psychoactive substance which occurs naturally in many plants and animals. Minuscule amounts can even be found in the human brain. It's a very simple molecule and is similar to the important neurotransmitter, serotonin.

The compound can be consumed as a psychedelic drug and has been used by various cultures throughout history for its ability to produce altered states of consciousness.

Among its most well-known uses is as a compound in Ayahuasca—a potent shamanic brew which has been used for hundreds or possibly thousands, of years by various groups in the Amazon region of South America and beyond.

But unlike an ayahuasca trip which can go on for several hours, the effects of pure DMT can last just 10-20 minutes. In that short time, users often experience profound emotional states and intense hallucinations.

For a study published in the journal Scientific Reports, a team of scientists led by Christopher Timmermann from the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London examined how the DMT experience affects human consciousness through its influence on the brain's electrical activity.

“DMT has remarkable effects in human consciousness,” Timmermann told Newsweek. “Users often report being completely immersed in alternate dimensions and interacting with beings or 'entities.' These experiences are usually described as feeling 'more real than real' and can challenge views people have regarding the nature of reality. This study attempted to understand how these fascinating experiences relate to brain activity recorded with the EEG or electroencephalogram, which records electrical activity generated by neurons. This is an optimal method to understand how brain activity changes over time.”

“Currently we don't know why we have DMT in our brains. There is some speculation that DMT may play an important role in extraordinary experiences such as mystical states and near-death experiences, and there are certainly some similarities between the psychological effects of the drug and these experiences,” he said. “However, these claims are still speculative and we need further evidence to confirm that role DMT plays.”

To understand more about how DMT influences brain activity, the Imperial team recruited 13 healthy volunteers. They then provided them with intravenous infusions of DMT, while measuring their brain waves before, during and after their psychedelic experience using electrodes fitted to their heads.

The data that the researchers collected revealed that DMT significantly altered electrical activity, causing a pronounced reduction in alpha waves—which our brain produces while we are awake. The team also observed short-lived spikes in theta waves, which are usually associated with dreaming.

Furthermore, they noticed that overall brain activity became more chaotic and unpredictable compared to placebo, which is the opposite of what scientists see during states of reduced (or loss of) consciousness, such as deep sleep or general anaesthesia.

“In this study we broke down many aspects of the DMT experience and its relationship to brain activity,” Timmermann said. “We found that the states of deep immersion induced by DMT—often described by users as a 'breakthrough experience'—were paralleled by decreases in alpha brain waves as well as increases in delta and theta brain waves. This is very intriguing because we find similar changes in brain waves when people are dreaming and both states can be said to be similar: people are cut off from external reality and feel immersed in other realities.”

“We saw an emergent rhythm that was present during the most intense part of the experience, suggesting an emerging order amidst the otherwise chaotic patterns of brain activity. From the altered brainwaves and participants' reports, it's clear these people are completely immersed in their experience—it's like daydreaming only far more vivid and immersive, it's like dreaming but with your eyes open,” he said in a statement.

According to the researchers, the volunteers described experiences which they felt to be both intense and meaningful.

“Our subjects reported having intense visions of geometric landscapes, entering alternate realities, feelings that they were expanding beyond the limits of their bodies, communicating with entities and had strong emotional reactions—all within 20 minutes,” Timmermann said.

According to the researchers, this study is the first to demonstrate how DMT affects our brain waves. The next step, they say, is to conduct a similar study which involves a continuous infusion of DMT, making the psychedelic experience last longer for the user. This kind of research could provide clues as to whether the substance could have any potential for therapeutic use.

“There is some evidence suggesting that this might be the case,” Timmermann said. “A study conducted in the University of Rio Grande do Norte from Brazil found that ayahuasca may have antidepressant effects and some preliminary results from our studies with DMT suggests similar effects in mood and other positive psychological outcomes, however we still need more research to determine for which conditions and in what circumstances it would be best to use DMT and ayahuasca for clinical applications.”

Robin Carhart-Harris, head of the Centre for Psychedelic Research, added in a statement: “Our sense it that research with DMT may yield important insights into the relationship between brain activity and consciousness, and this small study is a first step along that road.”


This article was first published in Newsweek

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