ANN ARBOR, Mich. — A psychedelic compound known for its powerful, hallucinogenic episodes is produced naturally in the brains of mammals, according to medical researchers from the University of Michigan. But despite the finding, scientists are still unsure as to why.
The trippy substance, known as DMT, or dimethyltryptamine, is a molecule that forms the active ingredient in Ayahuasca, a tea-like drink traditionally used in sacred rituals by indigenous people of the Amazon. The chemical substance causes short-term, transcendental hallucinations which many users call “life-changing.” Today, people from all over the world travel to South America to drink Ayahuasca brews made from plants containing naturally-occurring DMT.
Michigan Medicine researches believe their study is the first step in discovering the role of DMT in the human brain.
Before studying DMT, researchers first focused their work on the pineal gland, a mysterious part of the brain that was called by 17th century philosopher Rene Descartes “the seat of the soul.” Neurologists still don’t know all the functions it performs, but they’ve discovered that it produces melatonin and regulates circadian rhythms.
Previous research suggested that the pineal gland could be involved in producing DMT, but it hadn’t been proven — until now.
A 2013 experiment revealed the widespread presence of DMT in the pineal glands of rats. Dr. Jimo Borjigin, of the Department of Molecular and Integrative Physiology at Michigan Medicine, took the 2013 experiment further to find where in the brain DMT is being produced. Using a technique called in situ hybridization, in which a labeled strand of DNA localizes a specific RNA sequence in a section of tissue, Dr. Borjigin’s team found neurons in the brain with the two enzymes that form DMT. They found these enzymes in the pineal gland and other areas, too.
“They are also found in other parts of the brain, including the neocortex and hippocampus that are important for higher-order brain functions including learning and memory,” Dr. Borjigin says in a university release. “We don’t know what it’s doing in the brain. All we’re saying is we discovered the neurons that make this chemical in the brain, and they do so at levels similar to other monoamine neurotransmitters.”
Borjigin and her team also found that DMT levels increased in some rats that suffered from cardiac arrest — a discovery that could tie in to a 2018 study showing that people tripping on the drug experienced near-death hallucinations. The users felt as if they were leaving their own bodies and moving on to another world.
Borjigin plans to continue studying the mystery behind DMT naturally occurring in the brain.
The study is published in the journal Scientific Reports.