The history of DMT research
DMT was first researched by Hungarian scientist Stephen Szára in the 1950s. Inspired by the indigenous religious ceremonies in South America involving ayahuasca and other “plant medicines,” he was one of the first to demonstrate that the substance produces heightened states (including euphoria), and prompts hallucinations, illusions, and spatial distortions.
Research into the powerful psychedelic was furthered in the 1960s, when scientists tried to determine whether the presence of DMT could explain schizophrenia in certain individuals. (It could not be linked to schizophrenia.) In 1965, scientists Franzen and Gross also discovered that DMT can be found in the blood and urine of normal human subjects.
Then, in 1971, the U.S. passed the Controlled Substances Act and DMT was placed on a list of Schedule I drugs, making it illegal and therefore difficult to conduct research on.
The road to in-depth research
By the 1990s, the scientific community was able to break through governmental restrictions in order to conduct some of the most well-documented research on the substance to date.
Dr. Rick Strassman’s initial research on DMT took place from 1990-1995. This clinical research was approved by the U.S. government, and took place at the University of New Mexico. It involved injecting 60 participants with DMT and then documenting the results on human consciousness.
While many people who experience DMT do so in ceremonial settings such as ayahuasca ceremonies with shamans, Dr. Strassman simply gave participants a certain dosage of the DMT and then recorded their experiences.
“There were no bells, no whistles, no Buddhist statues,” said Dr. Strassman. “It was just ‘here’s the drug, and tell me what happened after you come down,’” said Dr. Strassman. “So it was kind of like sending people off to explore a new world and telling them to come back and tell us what they encountered.”
The experience of research participants
The vast majority of Strassman’s subjects had deep, mystical experiences on DMT, including several who considered them near-death experiences. Almost all said the DMT sessions were some of the most profound experiences they had ever had, and that they would remember them for their whole lives.
Many argue that Strassman’s research links DMT to the pineal gland, a pea-sized gland located between the eyebrows. It is the site of your “third eye” (or sixth chakra), and mystics across cultures agree that it is an access point to higher states of consciousness. Ancient wisdom suggests that developing your third eye chakra strengthens your access not only to your own intuition and knowing, but to collective wisdom.
In his book, DMT: The Spirit Molecule, Dr. Strassman argues that DMT can be naturally released by the pineal gland, and that this is part of the basis of a soul’s movement in and out of the body. He believes DMT released by the pineal gland is part of what leads to things like heightened states of consciousness such as those accessed during intense meditation, sacred sexuality (the feeling of merging with one’s partner), and the heightened experiences often reported at birth and death experiences.
Used wisely, Dr. Strassman believes “DMT could trigger a period of remarkable progress in the scientific exploration of the most mystical regions of the human mind and soul.”
The DMT research renaissance: Johns Hopkins and the 2000s
In 2000, a research group at Johns Hopkins got regulatory approval in the U.S. to reinitiate research with psychedelics in healthy volunteers.
In 2006, Johns Hopkins made history with their scientific paper outlining both the safety and enduring “positive effects” of psilocybin (the active component of magic mushrooms, and a form of DMT). That study is frequently pointed to as a watershed moment that prompted a renaissance of psychedelic research all over the world.
The Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic & Consciousness Research focuses its research on “how psychedelics affect behavior, mood, cognition, brain function, and biological markers of health.”
Research out of the renowned institution has already shown highly encouraging, positive therapeutic effects in people suffering from a wide range of conditions, including:
- Substance abuse and addiction (including smoking, alcohol, and other drugs)
- Existential distress caused by life-threatening disease (such as incurable cancer)
- Depression (specifically individuals who’ve tried other treatments that haven’t worked, aka “treatment-resistant depression”)
Their current and upcoming studies specifically explore the efficacy of psilocybin (magic mushrooms) as a realistic therapeutic option to treat a number of mental health and physical health problems. These include:
- PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder)
- Alzheimer’s Disease
- Lyme disease
- Substance abuse (including opioid addiction)
- Behavioral addictions (including anorexia nervosa)
- Alcohol use in people with major depression
The hope is for researchers to be able to come up with precise treatments specific to the needs of individual patients (similar to the proper dosage of a pharmaceutical medicine).
The advantages of DMT research
One of the most promising and compelling advantages of DMT research is that experts report that when done correctly, DMT can help address the root causes of issues like depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.
This contrasts directly with current psychiatric responses to mental health conditions like depression, which frequently simply treat the symptoms of the depression (with things like antidepressants or benzodiazepines).
It goes without saying that having a reliable way to help people process the initial trauma that led to their current experience of addiction, illness, mental health disorders, and more — would be more than just groundbreaking. It would be revolutionary.
The mysteries of DMT research
When it comes to DMT and other psychedelics, there are still a lot of compelling questions yet to answer. For example, while scientists know that the human body shows differing levels of DMT, it’s unclear what DMT is doing there.
It’s obviously important, since it’s one of the rare compounds the brain absorbs that cannot be generated by the body itself (other compounds like this include amino acids required for healthy brain functioning, and glucose).
“That makes you wonder if DMT might be involved in the regulation in every day normal consciousness as well,” says Dr. Strassman. “And something else that has been discovered over the past few years is that the enzyme and the gene that synthesise DMT are quite active in the retina. So it could be that DMT is regulating a visual perception in particular as well as regulation of consciousness.”
According to Dr. Stassman, “I think DMT in particular, but psychedelics in general, must likely stimulate the imaginative faculty of the mind more than the rational faculty … So it could be that once we start looking at the biology or the neurophysiology of the imaginative faculty versus the rational faculty, DMT may help us understand the imaginative faculty’s function.”
In other words, psychedelics like DMT could help us understand what exactly the human imagination is, and what its purpose is. Again, part of its purpose could be profound healing.
The future of DMT research
One challenge in terms of researching the effects of DMT is that the body breaks it down quickly. Typically a DMT “trip” only lasts 15-30 minutes.
However, in 2016 Dr. Strassman and colleague Andrew Gallimore published new research outlining a methodology for giving DMT continuously over a number of hours, extending a person’s experience.
The purpose of the study was in part to explore the possibility of using DMT therapeutically. “Lots of people describe the therapeutic benefits of ayahuasca,” says Strassman, “and if you could extend the DMT state you could be able to apply it for therapeutic purposes. More practical experiments would be to extend the state and see if that has applications for therapy.”
And according to Rick Doblin, TED speaker and head of the organization MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies), “In the work with classic psychedelics such as LSD and psilocybin, for example, what we’ve discovered is the mystical experience you can have — the depth of ego dissolution — is correlated with therapeutic outcomes. The more people go beyond themselves into this sort of state, the better they’re able to overcome their fear of death, overcome addiction, or overcome depression.”
Doblin and other leaders in the field are outspoken about the need to legalize psychedelics, so that more people can be helped faster.