The brain is able to make its own DMT

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American researchers have discovered the natural presence of DMT in the brain, a hallucinogenic molecule mostly known in South America.

Thrill-seekers, you may have heard of Ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic “potion” traditionally prepared by indigenous people in South America. People who have participated in “Ayahuasca Retreats” believe that the drunkenness and hallucinations caused by potion have the power to change lives.

According to a new study by American researchers, no need to go that far to find the ingredient responsible for the psychedelic effects of Ayahuasca. Michigan Medicine scientists have discovered the widespread presence of a molecule called dimethyltryptamine (DMT) in the mammalian brain. The results of their study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Jimo Borjigin, lead author of the study, did not work at all on DMT initially, but on the pineal gland. The latter, still shrouded in mystery, controls the production of melatonin in the brain and seemingly plays a role in the body’s internal clock. In a 90’s documentary, Rick Strassmann, a doctor at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, speculated that the pineal gland could also make and secrete DMT.

“I thought, ‘wait, I’ve been working on the pineal gland for years, and I’ve never heard of that’,” says Jimo Borjigin. She then contacted Strassmann to suggest that she work with her on the subject. The two researchers published a first study in 2013, which confirms the presence of DMT in rat brains, and that by the pineal gland.

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To go further, Jimo Borjigin decides to look for where and how the DMT is synthesized. For this, one of his graduate students, Jon Dean, sets up an experiment using a process called “in situ hybridization”, which can locate a precise ribonucleic acid (RNA) sequence. “Thanks to this technique, we found brain neurons with two enzymes needed to make DMT,” says Borjigin.

And these were not only in the pineal gland, but also in the neocortex and the hippocampus, important in higher brain functions such as learning and memory.

Another finding: DMT levels increased in some rats with cardiac arrest. However, a British study published last year demonstrated how the DMT molecule simulated the experience of impending death. This is why Ayahuasca consumers often report the feeling of transcending their bodies and entering “another world”.

Despite these leads, the role of DMT in the brain is still unknown. “All we are saying is that we have discovered the neurons that make this chemical in the brain at levels similar to other neurotransmitters.”

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Andrei Santov

Andrei, a sociologist by profession, born in Russia but currently located in UK, covers mostly European and Russia-related news for The Talking Democrat.