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Scientists Have a Fascinating New Map of the Human Brain on DMT

"It's almost as if people are seeing with their eyes closed."

by Sam Nichols
28 November 2019, 6:38am

Image by Ben Thomson

Taking DMT is a bit like putting your brain through a jet engine and getting your consciousness blown out the other side. There’s no “you” anymore. You’re just kind of everywhere, surrounded by colours and fractals and aliens that look a bit like elves. It feels a lot like being dead, or what you imagine being dead feels like, and then you’re sucked back into your body feeling somewhere between terrified and peaceful. But what’s weird is that for such a chaotic ride, there seems to be a pattern to the experience. The trip tends to follow a similar trajectory each time, and everyone seems to experience some variation of the same thing.

For scientists this uniformity presents some interesting questions. Namely: what’s the neurology behind DMT? And why do so many people report seeing elves? These questions have instigated a few studies, including one at Johns Hopkins in the United States, but the latest findings have just come from the Imperial College London.

Last week a study published in Scientific Reports looked at the brain’s response to DMT, courtesy of the college’s Psychedelic Research Group. There, researchers administered intravenous DMT to 13 subjects, while measuring their brains’ electrical activity via a web of electrodes loaded into head caps—devices that are known as "EEG caps".

“If we’re serious about understanding human beings and their consciousness, we need to understand psychedelic experiences,” Christopher Timmins, a PhD student at Imperial College London and author of the study, told VICE over the phone. “DMT [is] particularly relevant because, at normal doses, it generates this very strong sense of immersiveness.”

We asked Christopher what else he and his team discovered about DMT’s bewildering effects on the brain.

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Christopher Timmermann. Credit: Imperial College London, photo by Thomas Angus

VICE: HI Chris. Can you start by explaining our current understanding of how DMT works on a neurological level?
Christopher Timmermann: We know DMT works with the serotonin system in the brain. Serotonin is one of the major chemicals that we have in the brain that’s responsible for a series of functions related to consciousness—wakefulness, attention. DMT is very closely related to the serotonin molecule. We also know that if you block a specific serotonin receptor in the brain, the psychological effects of DMT are inhibited. So we know that the specific receptor, the serotonin 2A receptor, is crucial for psychedelic effects. And this receptor is expressed all over the cerebral cortex—it’s very prominent in sensory areas, and it’s distributed all around.

What neurological effects did you see in your subjects after they’d taken DMT?
The brainwave patterns seen are particularly notorious in certain states of consciousness. For example, you have an Alpha wave pattern that’s very prominent when you close your eyes and disengage from the environment. When we open our eyes after that, this Alpha wave pattern goes down a very significant way. In the DMT study, we found the same thing—a very strong reduction of these Alpha waves. The only difference is that people kept their eyes closed. It's almost as if people were seeing with their eyes closed, engaging with a world. And we found this reduction in Alpha waves was very strongly associated [with] the intensity of the experience.

Another way we try to understand brain activity is to see how chaotically, or entropically, the brain behaves after we administer these drugs. With DMT, we found that there was a huge increase in this chaotic activity. This is interesting because it’s the opposite of what happens in the brain when there is a loss of consciousness, such as when you’re in a coma, or you’re sleeping or dreaming.

Were there any other brainwave patterns you noticed?
Yeah we also saw an increase in Theta and Delta waves. It’s interesting because these increases were particularly noticeable when people were in the peak of this experience, so the moment in which people felt completely immersed in this alternate reality of sorts. This Theta wave, specifically, is tightly related to dreaming, so therefore we have some initial evidence that there’s a similar mechanism behind dreaming and this very immersive DMT experience.

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Treatment room setup. Credit: Imperial College London and photo by Thomas Angus

I’m interested in how the people in your study reacted to the DMT. You write that they were all exposed to psychedelics, but did anyone report seeing anything interesting during their trip?
There were challenging moments for sure; moments where people in the interview after reported that it was too much. One participant said she reached a point in which she couldn’t go further. She described encountering some beings or entities that were pushing against her, not allowing her to trespass into their realm, and I think this was particularly challenging. But after that, she said she was falling through pink clouds of comfort, and other entities were healing her once she was going through this space.

Now, the whole idea is DMT allows people to break through different realities. But it's fairly well established that while some can, others can’t. Is there any neurological reason as to why this is?
There are many factors that can influence this. I’d say a very important one is that people usually smoke DMT, and smoking is a very ineffective way to ingest a drug because a lot of the product can be burned before it’s absorbed. There’s variability in the lung capacity people have, how much time they’re holding the smoke in, and basically, your history with smoking other substances.

Okay, but are there any explanations neurologically? You mentioned serotonin earlier, so could anything be altering those receptors, like antidepressant drugs for example?
We don’t know how well antidepressants interact, at least at the experiential level. The usual saying of psychedelics is that when people are taking antidepressants, psychedelics don’t work as well. There’s also some evidence that this serotonin 2A receptor is mediated by a gene some people apparently have or don’t have. But again, these things are speculative. There’s nothing mechanistically proven about why people may not break through. But I would say that dose is a very big explanation.

Is there any scientific way to explain DMT breakthroughs? Like, are we closer to understanding why, or how, people meet entities like “machine elves”?
At the moment we don’t know. What we’re doing now is we’re conducting other experiments in which we use DMT, and we give it inside fMRI scanners, because fMRI scanners allow you to look at things happening [inside] the brain with much more precision. And that is important because we know that certain areas of the brain are used for recognising faces, when we’re engaging in social activities, and so on.

So you’re saying DMT might affect the parts of our brain that recognise faces, which could be why we’re seeing the faces of elves when we’re on DMT?
Look, DMT might be acting on specific areas of the brain responsible for face recognition, or understanding the mind of others, or recognising intentions, but these are speculations only.

So, to you, what’s been the point of the study? How has this research helped us to understand DMT or even this notion of consciousness?
An important part of this study has been exploring how DMT trips are part of the human experience repertoire. These are states that human beings can have. As a scientist, there’s a natural curiosity in understanding not only why, but understanding the experiences themselves. One of the important things about this study has been examining what kind of experiences human beings can have, and how we can make sense of them.

Interview by Sam Nichols. He's on Twitter

This article originally appeared on VICE AU.

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