Over the years, users have reported that dimethyltryptamine (DMT) can have mind-altering effects. The psychedelic, which is the major psychoactive compound in ayahuasca, is said to have a relatively brief but intense effect on the brain, altering consciousness for minutes rather than hours. Taking DMT is often characterized by vivid and bizarre visions. But no one has ever comprehensively studied brain activity before, during, and after the DMT experience—until now.
In a paper published in PNAS on Monday, researchers at Imperial College in London describe their study in which they used advanced brain imaging (fMRI) and EEG to study the effects of the drug on 20 individuals. When the subjects were on DMT, there was increased connectivity across the brain, and more communication between different areas and systems. Brain activity also changed in areas linked with “higher level functions” such as imagination.
“We found that DMT generated a prominent alteration of the brain’s evolved areas and networks, which have been linked to human brain expansion in evolution, language, and semantics,” Chris Timmerman, from the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London, and the study’s first author, wrote in an email to Motherboard. “These findings were related also to EEG effects which directly assess electrical activity induced by the brain, thus confirming them further.
Other studies have imaged the brain on psychedelics. However, this is the first to comprehensively image the brain using multiple techniques during a full immersive psychedelic experience.
“This is the first study examining the effects of a psychedelic using multiple neuroimaging methods while the brain is at rest and not doing a task,” Timmerman wrote. “This provides opportunities for participants to have full psychedelic experiences and not be distracted.”
Timmerman believes that these results may provide some of the most comprehensive insights into the action of psychedelics in humans to date. He points out that it has implications for consciousness research and clinical applications, such as treatment of mental health disorders.
“The advanced human cortex has been linked to how we build our normal experiences of the world,” he wrote. “By altering these systems we may be able to construct novel worlds of experience, resonating with the DMT experience. Advanced human systems have also been linked to depression and symptoms of rumination, by dysregulating these systems DMT may have clinical relevance when given together with psychological support.”
While this study demonstrates the general action of psychedelics in the brain, further steps are needed to determine exactly how these brain effects are linked to some of the most outstanding psychological experiences a person can experience during DMT trips.
“We are now in the process of collecting detailed accounts of the experience during the trip and matching them with brain effects,” Timmerman wrote. “We are also looking to expand the usually short-acting experiences of DMT (which last only around 10 minutes) by using continuous infusions of DMT to expand that experience further.”
Timmerman also stresses that DMT is a psychologically potent drug capable of inducing strong anxiety and fear reactions when not done correctly.
“We performed careful screening to make sure participants were psychologically healthy and make sure we had a medic onsite and people with a background in psychology and therapy to ensure everyone was safe during and after the experience,” he wrote.