Your Brain on DMT

New research shows DMT affects parts of the brain used in imagination and other higher-level brain functions

The effect of DMT on the brain introducing nirvana hallucinogenic effect

State-licensed psilocybin-assisted therapy clinics will begin opening in Colorado next year, thanks to Proposition 122 passing in November, and by 2026, clinics will also be allowed to administer ibogaine, mescaline, and dimethyltryptamine (DMT) therapy. 

All four of those substances are derived from plants: Psilocybin comes from mushrooms, ibogaine from the iboga shrub, mescaline from peyote cactus, and DMT from ayahuasca. 

DMT, however, is unique in one particular regard: It’s a drug that is produced by many plants and animals other than ayahuasca — including humans. Endogenous DMT is a product of our own brains. People who use DMT often have transcendental, sometimes out-of-body experiences. They hallucinate vividly and report meeting higher-dimensional beings, having near-death experiences, and kaleidoscopic journeys through universes beyond our own. 

And the entire trip lasts just 10-20 minutes. 

Terrance McKenna compared it to psilocybin: “Unlike mushrooms, where over hours and hours on a high dose you might navigate yourself to the center of the Mandela, DMT is like being struck by metaphysical lightning.”

New research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science sheds some light on that metaphysical lightning. Researchers wanted to see what happens inside people’s brains as they experience DMT. The results not only show that this drug affects the parts of the brain where we generate our reality, but it also acts on the highest-evolved areas of the brain that deal with complex problem-solving, language, planning, and imagination. 

Robin Carhart-Harris, one of the study’s authors, explains that DMT blurs typical connections in the brain, causing them to be less distinct from one another. 

For the study, 20 volunteers received  a 20-mg injection of DMT. A placebo shot was administered during a second visit to act as a control. 

“At the dose we use, it is incredibly potent,” Carhart-Harris says. Enough, he explains, for subjects to “breakthrough” into “another world.”

Throughout the experience, patients gave updates on how intense the trip felt on a 10-point scale. They were also scanned using both electroencephalography (EEG) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). 

The researchers were able to see a direct connection between areas instrumental for imagination and other higher-level functions of the brain and the intensity of their subjects’ DMT trips. Chris Timmermann, head of DMT research group at Imperial College in London, says the drug creates a system of hyperconnectivity within the brain. 

One of the studies’ major conclusions has to do with the “entropic brain hypothesis.” The idea suggests that psychedelics increase the entropy of brain activity in parallel with the “depth of content” — or richness — of one’s conscious experience.

“We suspect that while the newer, more evolved aspects of the brain dysregulate under DMT, older systems in the brain may be disinhibited,” Carhart-Harris says. “A similar kind of thing happens in dreaming.”

Other research has noted that brain activity and experiences similar to those caused while under the influence of DMT also happen during near-death experiences. People who have close calls with death often report feeling like they have transcended their bodies, entered an alternate realm, and even encounter entities — very similar to reported DMT experiences. Suggesting to some researchers that endogenous DMT is released by our own brains at the time of death. 

With luck, a lot of future research surrounding the DMT state and its effects on the brain will happen here in Colorado. With DMT clinics just a few years away, this state is uniquely positioned to become a hub for this kind of research and to delve more deeply into the uses of DMT as a therapy drug. 

“This is just the beginning in cracking the question of how DMT works to alter consciousness so dramatically,” Carhart-Harris says. 

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