Scientists Map Out Effects of DMT on the Brain

Researchers from the Imperial College London believe they know how brain activity changes from the effects of DMT.
DMT
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Advanced brain imaging in a study from a team of U.K.-based scientists shows how dimethyltryptamine (DMT) alters perception of reality by changing communication and connectivity.

According to a March 20 press release, brain mapping revealed that DMT significantly activated areas to imagination and other high-level functions, and that DMT enhances communication and connectivity between different parts of the brain.

Researchers associated with Imperial College London examined brain imaging data from 20 healthy volunteers. The volunteers were given a 20mg injection of DMT while researchers from Imperial College of London’s Centre for Psychedelic Research captured detailed imagery of their brains. This allowed the team to study how brain activity changes before, during, and after the trip. Findings show DMT alters brain function.

“This work is exciting as it provides the most advanced human neuroimaging view of the psychedelic state to-date,” said Dr Chris Timmerman, first author on the study. Timmerman conducts research at the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London.

“One increasingly popular view is that much of brain function is concerned with modeling or predicting its environment,” Timmerman added. “Humans have unusually big brains and model an unusually large amount of the world. For example, like with optical illusions, when we’re looking at something, some of what we’re actually seeing is our brain filling in the blanks based on what we already know. What we have seen with DMT is that activity in highly evolved areas and systems of the brain that encode especially high-level models becomes highly dysregulated under the drug, and this relates to the intense drug ‘trip’.”

LSD and psilocybin—classic psychedelics—have quite a bit a longer duration and effects last up to six or 12 hours, respectively, if not more. DMT however is a short-acting but very powerful psychedelic, wearing off in a matter of minutes, though it may not seem that way in some cases.

The main difference between the effects of DMT versus classic psychedelics is that the effects of DMT are much more closely related to near-death experiences, while classic psychedelics are a bit less intense. “But exactly how the compound alters brain function to account for such effects has been unclear,” scientists wrote in the press release.

Volunteers received a 20mg high dose of DMT—intravenously—while simultaneously being scanned by two types of brain imaging: functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalography (EEG). 

According to the report, the duration of the psychedelic experience lasted about 20 minutes, and at regular intervals, volunteers provided a rating of the subjective intensity of their experience on a 1-10 scale.

The fMRI scans showed activity within and between brain regions in volunteers on DMT, including increased connectivity across the brain and more communication between different areas and systems. 

They call this phenomena “network disintegration and desegregation” and increased “global functional connectivity,” aligning with previous studies. The changes in activity that were observed were mostly in brain areas associated with “higher level” human-specific functions, i.e. imagination.

“Motivated by, and building on our previous research with psychedelics, the present work combined two complementary methods for imaging the brain… fMRI allowed us to see the whole of the brain, including its deepest structures, and EEG helped us view the brain’s fine-grained rhythmic activity,” Prof Robin Carhart-Harris, founder of the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London, and senior author, who is now working at the University of California, San Francisco.

Meanwhile, a U.K.-based biotech company Small Pharma is conducting the first major study of DMT and its potential for treating major depressive disorder (MDD).

The findings shine light on the mechanism behind how DMT helps overcome deep-rooted issues.

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