"DMT - The spirit molecule" ~ Rick Strassman (Part 1)

What DMT is?

N-dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, is the remarkable "thing". While chemically simple, this "spirit" molecule provides our consciousness access to the most amazing and unexpected visions, thoughts, and feelings. It throws open the door to worlds beyond our imagination. DMT exists in all of our bodies and occurs throughout the plant and animal kingdoms. It is a part of the normal makeup of humans and other mammals; marine animals; grasses and peas; toads and frogs; mushrooms and molds; and barks, flowers, and roots. Psychedelic alchemist Alexander Shulgin devotes an entire chapter to DMT in TIHKAL: Tryptamines I Have Known and Loved. He aptly entitles this chapter "DMT Is Everywhere" and declares: "DMT is . . . in this flower here, in that tree over there, and in yonder animal. [It] is, most simply, almost everywhere you choose to look." Indeed, it is getting to the point where one should report where DMT is not found, rather than where it is. DMT is most abundant in plants of Latin America. There, humans have known of its amazing properties for some tens of thousands of years. However, it is only in the last 150 years that we have gained some inkling of the antiquity of DMT's relationship with our species.

Beginning in the mid-1800s, explorers of the Amazon, particularly Richard Spruce from England and Alexander von Humboldt from Germany, described the effects of exotic mind-altering snuffs and brews prepared from plants by indigenous tribes. In the twentieth century, the American botanist Richard Schultes continued this dangerous yet exciting line of fieldwork. Especially striking were the effects of, and the manner of administering, the psychoactive snuffs. Latin American indigenous tribes continue to use these snuffs and have given them many names, including yopo, epena, and jurema. They take huge doses, sometimes an ounce or more. One dramatic technique is for one's snuffing partner to blow the powdery mixtures with considerable force through a tube or pipe into the other's nose. The energy of the blast may be sufficient to drop the recipient to the ground.

Spruce and von Humboldt reported that natives were immediately incapacitated by these psychedelic snuffs. Neither, however, went so far as to see for themselves what they were like. It was enough to watch the intoxicated Indians, twitching, vomiting, and babbling incoherently. These early explorers heard tales of fantastic visions, "out-of-body travel," predictions of the future, location of lost objects, and contact with dead ancestors or other disembodied entities.

Another plant mixture, this one consumed as a beverage, seemed to produce similar effects at a slower pace. This brew also went by several names, including ayahuasca and yage. This drink inspired much rock art and paintings drawn on the walls of native shelters—what would be called "psychedelic" art today. Spruce and von Humboldt brought samples of these New World psychedelic plants back home to Europe. There the plants lay undisturbed for decades, as neither the interest nor the technology existed for further analysis of their chemical makeup or effects.

While psychedelic plants languished in natural history museum archives, Canadian chemist R. Manske, in unrelated research, synthesized a new drug called N,N-dimethyltryptamine, or DMT. As he described in a 1931 scientific article, Manske had made several compounds derived by chemically modifying tryptamine. He was interested in these products because they occurred in a toxic North American plant, the strawberry shrub. DMT was one of these. As far as anyone knows, Manske made DMT, noted its structure, and then placed his supply in some isolated corner of his laboratory, where it quietly collected dust. No one yet knew about DMT's existence in mindaltering plants, its psychedelic properties, or its presence in the human body. There was little interest in psychedelics in scientific circles until decades later, after World War II.

In the early 1950s, the discoveries of LSD and serotonin rocked the staid foundations of Freudian psychiatry and laid the groundwork for the new world of neuroscience. Curiosity about psychedelic drugs was intense among the growing circle of scientists who called themselves "psychopharmacologists." Chemists began probing the barks, leaves, and seeds of plants first described as psychedelic a hundred years earlier, seeking their active ingredients. The tryptamine family was a logical place to focus, as both serotonin and LSD are tryptamines. Success was not long in coming. In 1946, 0. Gongalves isolated DMT from a South American tree used for psychedelic snuffs and published his findings in Spanish. In 1955, M. S. Fish, N. M. Johnson, and E. C. Horning published the first English-language paper describing DMT's presence in another closely related snuff-producing tree. However, although they knew that DMT was a constituent of plants that produced psychedelic effects, scientists didn't know if DMT itself was psychoactive.

In the 1950s, Hungarian chemist and psychiatrist Stephen Szara read about the profoundly mind-altering effects of LSD and mescaline. He ordered some LSD from Sandoz Laboratories so he could begin his own studies into the chemistry of consciousness. Since Szara was behind the Iron Curtain, the Swiss drug company was unwilling to risk letting their powerful LSD falling into Communist hands, and they turned down his request. Undaunted, he looked up recent papers describing DMT's presence in psychedelic Amazonian snuffs. He then synthesized some DMT in his Budapest laboratory in 1955. Szara swallowed ever-increasing doses of DMT, but felt nothing. He tried taking up to one full gram, hundreds of thousands of times more than an active dose of LSD. He wondered whether something in his gastrointestinal system was preventing oral DMT from working. Maybe it needed to be injected. His hunch predated the later discovery that there is a mechanism in the gut that breaks down oral DMT as quickly as it is swallowed—a mechanism South American natives found a way to bypass thousands of years ago. In the spirit of "who goes first," Szara gave himself an intramuscular, or IM, injection of DMT in 1956. In this case, he used about half of what we now know to be a "full" dose:

"In three or four minutes I started to experience visual sensations that were very similar to what I had read in descriptions by Hofmann [about LSD] and Huxley [about mescaline]. . . . I got very, very excited. It was obvious this was the secret."

After later doubling the dose, he had this to say:

"[Physical] symptoms appeared, such as a tingling sensation, trembling, slight nausea, [widening of the pupils], elevation of the blood pressure and increase of the pulse rate. At the same time, eidetic phenomena [after-images or "trails" of visually perceived objects], optical illusions, pseudo-hallucinations, and later real hallucinations appeared. The hallucinations consisted of moving, brilliantly colored oriental motifs, and later I saw wonderful scenes altering very rapidly. The faces of the people seemed to be masks. My emotional state was elevated sometimes up to euphoria. My consciousness was completely filled by hallucinations, and my attention was firmly bound to them; therefore I could not give an account of the events happening around me. After 45 minutes to 1 hour the symptoms disappeared, and I was able to describe what had happened."

Szara quickly recruited thirty volunteers, mostly young Hungarian physician colleagues. They all received full psychedelic doses. One male physician reported:
"The whole world is brilliant.... The whole room is filled with spirits. It makes me dizzy.... Now it is too much!... I feel exactly as if I were flying. . . . I have the feeling that this is above everything, above the earth. It is comforting to know I am back on earth again. . . . Everything has a spiritual tinge but is so real. . . . I feel that I have landed. . . ."

A female physician stated:

"How simple everything is. .. . In front of me are two quiet, sunlit Gods. . . . I think they are welcoming me into this new world. There is a deep silence as in the desert. . . . I am finally at home. . . . Dangerous game; it would be so easy not to return. I am faintly aware that I am a doctor, but this is not important; family ties, studies, plans, and memories are very remote from me. Only this world is important; I am free and utterly alone."

The Western world had discovered DMT, and DMT had entered into its consciousness. Despite the occasional bad trip among his volunteers, Szara liked the short-acting DMT. It was relatively easy to use, fully psychedelic, and experiments could be done in just a few hours. After escaping Hungary with his DMT supply in the late 1950s, he met a Berlin colleague who enrolled him in an LSD study. Finally Szara could try this fabled psychedelic. While he found the effects interesting, its twelve-hour duration was too long for his liking. Upon emigrating to the United States, Szara's primary research interest continued to be DMT. It served him well in his new job at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, where he worked for over three decades. He served as the Director of Preclinical Research at the National Institute on Drug Abuse for many years before retiring in 1991. Other groups confirmed and expanded Szara's discovery that DMT must be injected to work. However, it is surprising how little detailed information researchers other than Szara gave regarding its psychological properties. For example, after Szara left Hungary, his former laboratory reported only that DMT in normal volunteers caused "a [psychotic] state . . . dominated by colored hallucinations, loss of time and space reality, euphoria, some delusional experiences and sometimes by anxiety and clouding of consciousness."

One of the busiest American centers for human psychedelic research was the Public Health Service Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky. There, men serving prison sentences for narcotic law violations received dozens of mind-altering drugs, hoping their research participation might lead to more favorable treatment. However, all we read about the effects of DMT in these studies is that "the mental effects consisted of anxiety, hallucinations (usually visual) and perceptual distortions." Even less revealing were studies at the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health. Here, a group of research subjects with experience using psychedelics needed only to provide a number indicating "how high" they were on a full dose of DMT. The authors do comment, however, that most of these seasoned volunteers were "higher than they had ever been."

The "psychedelic subculture" discovered DMT soon after the research community did, but the earliest reports of its effects earned it the title of a "terror drug." William Burroughs, author of The Naked Lunch, was one of the earliest field users of DMT. Burroughs's and his British colleagues' encounters with it were unpleasant. Leary relates Burroughs's tale of a psychiatrist and his friend who injected DMT together in a London apartment. The friend began panicking and, to the psychiatrist, appeared to transform into a "writhing, wiggling reptile." "The doctor's dilemma: where to make an intravenous injection [of an antidote] in a squirming, orientalmartian snake?" This is as good an example of the power of a negative set and setting as there is: two people high on injected DMT in a seedy flat at the same time, one being responsible for the other. "Terror" drug, indeed.

It was difficult for DMT to shake its frightening reputation, even after Leary's later positive descriptions of its effects. DMT did see some popularity among those who appreciated its short duration. Some bold individuals thought it possible to take DMT during lunch, and so it gained the dubious nickname, "businessman's trip." Despite Szara's and others' steady production of research papers about DMT, it remained mostly a pharmacological curiosity: intense, short-lived, and found in plants. Clearly, LSD had a leg up on DMT when it came to making a significant impression on the psychiatric research community. This all changed, however, when researchers discovered DMT in the brains of mice and rats, and then uncovered the pathways by which these animals' bodies made this powerful psychedelic.

Did DMT exist in the human body? It seemed likely, because scientists had discovered DMT-forming enzymes in samples of human lung tissue while searching for those same enzymes in other animals. The race was on. In 1965 a research team from Germany published a paper in the flagship British science journal Nature announcing that they had isolated DMT from human blood. In 1972 Nobel-prize winning scientist Julius Axelrod of the U.S. National Institutes of Health reported finding it in human brain tissue. Additional research showed that DMT could also be found in human urine and the cerebrospinal fluid bathing the brain. It was not long before scientists discovered the pathways, similar to those in lower animals, by which the human body made DMT. DMT thus became the first endogenous human psychedelic. Endogenous means that a compound is made in the body: endo, "within," and genous, "generated" or "formed." Endogenous DMT, then, is DMT made within the body. There are other endogenous compounds with which we've become familiar over the years. For example, endogenous mor/j/ime-like compounds are endorphins. However, the discovery of DMT in the human body stimulated much less fanfare than did that of endorphins. As we will see later in this chapter, anti-psychedelic-drug sentiment sweeping the country at the time actually turned researchers against studying endogenous DMT. The discoverers of endorphins, in contrast, won Nobel Prizes. The crucial question then naturally arose: "What is DMT doing in our bodies?"
Psychiatry's answer was: "Perhaps it causes mental illness." This reply was reasonable, considering psychiatry's mandate to understand and treat serious psychopathology. However, it fell short of all the other possible scientifically meritorious answers. By limiting themselves to investigating DMT's role in psychosis, scientists lost a unique opportunity to probe deeper into the mysteries of consciousness. Or they did it on purpose

Scientists believed that LSD and other "psychotomimetics" induced a short-term "model psychosis" in normal volunteers. They thought that by finding an "endogenous psychotomimetic," the cause of, and potential cures for, serious mental illnesses might be at hand. DMT, as the first known endogenous psychotomimetic, suggested the search might be over. For example, one could give DMT to normal volunteers to induce psychosis, and eventually develop new medications to block its effects in them. Subsequently, psychiatric patients would receive this "anti-DMT." If excessive naturally produced DMT was causing the patient's psychosis, this anti-DMT would have antipsychotic effects.

Intentional fight with DMT?
These DMT investigations just were getting up to speed when, in 1970, Congress passed the law placing it and other psychedelics into a highly restricted legal category. It became nearly impossible to conduct any new human DMT research. Soon after, in 1976, a paper published by scientists at the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health, or NIMH, tolled the death knell for human DMT studies. The authors were topflight researchers, several of whom had given DMT to humans. They correctly concluded that the evidence relating DMT to schizophrenia was complex and uncertain. However, rather than suggesting more refined and careful research into the areas of disagreement, the authors concluded:
"Like any good scientific theory, the DMT model of schizophrenia will ultimately live or die by the data that it heuristically generates. We hope that, within the foreseeable future, forthcoming data will give this theory either a new lease on life or a decent burial."

This "decent burial" came soon enough. Within a year or two, the last paper on human DMT research appeared. Few scientists shed tears to mark its passing. Was DMT buried alive by those whose careers and reputations were endangered by a controversial area of research? The DMT-psychosis field was no different from any other biological psychiatry research endeavor investigating complex and uncertain relationships between the mind and brain. Encouraging its abandonment appears to have been as much politically as scientifically motivated.

In general, there were two types of studies investigating the DMT-psychosis theory. One compared blood levels of DMT between ill patients and normal volunteers. The other study design compared the subjective effects of psychedelic drugs to those of naturally occurring psychotic states. The NIMH team that discounted the theory of a DMT-psychosis relationship, leading to the demise of human DMT research, critiqued both approaches. They pointed to the lack of consistent differences between blood levels of DMT in normal volunteers and psychotic patients; they also rejected claims that the effects of DMT and symptoms of schizophrenia demonstrated enough similarities to justify additional research.

First, let's discuss the blood level data. Essentially all DMT studies measured its concentration in blood drawn from forearm veins. However, it seems unreasonable to expect these levels to accurately reflect DMT's function in extraordinarily small, highly specialized, distinct brain areas. Finding a close relationship between blood levels and brain effects would be even less likely if the DMT originated in the brain in the first place.

This difficulty is one that all scientists recognize, even for such wellknown brain chemicals as serotonin. Dozens of studies have failed to convincingly relate serotonin levels in blood drawn from the forearm to psychiatric diagnoses with presumed abnormalities in brain serotonin. Therefore, it was unlikely, using DMT blood levels, that any real conclusions could be drawn regarding differences between normal and psychotic individuals. If psychiatric researchers demand such data for all brain chemicals, where is the call to bury serotonin?

In the case of comparing schizophrenia to DMT intoxication, the case becomes even murkier. Schizophrenia is a remarkably complex syndrome. There are several forms, such as "paranoid," "disorganized," and "undifferentiated." There are many stages, including "early," "acute," "late," and "chronic." There are even "prodromal" symptoms that exist before the illness becomes severe enough to diagnose. In addition, symptoms of schizophrenia develop over months and years, and individuals modify their behavior to deal with their unusual experiences. These adaptations in turn create new symptoms and behaviors. To expect a single drug given one time to a normal person to mimic schizophrenia is not reasonable. No one today contends that this is possible. Rather, the consensus even then was that the syndromes of psychedelic drug intoxication and schizophrenia possessed significant overlap. Hallucinations and other sensory distortions, altered thought processes, extreme and rapid shifts in mood, disturbances in the sense of bodily and personal identity—all these may occur in some cases of schizophrenia and psychedelic states.

In psychiatry, there are always both similarities and differences between the diseases we seek to understand and the models we use to study them. We are always in search of better models, but we use the ones we have, keeping in mind their shortcomings. The NIMH group's rejection of DMT effects as producing a "valid" psychotic state was not consistent with accepted psychiatric research theory, practice, or the data. If the scientific basis for discontinuing human DMT research was so meager, why, then, was it stopped? What was the meaning behind the "life and death," "lease on life," and "decent burial" rhetoric? The data begged for further clarification. Instead, these federal scientists distanced themselves from an extraordinarily promising field and encouraged others to do the same.

DMT was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Rational research into its function was swept aside by the anti-psychedelic furor that accompanied these drugs' uncontrolled use and abuse. This move to limit access to psychedelic drugs in order to respond to widespread public health fears affected DMT research in the same way it did research into LSD and other psychedelics. Political concerns overwhelmed scientific principles. Stuck in the quicksand of trying to prove its role in schizophrenia, and trampled underfoot in the stampede of anti-psychedelic sentiments, no one studying DMT dared continue asking the most obvious and pressing question, which the first round of human research had failed to address. It was a riddle I could not ignore: "What is DMT doing in our bodies?"

DMT is the simplest of the tryptamine psychedelics. Compared to other molecules, DMT is rather small. Its weight is 188 "molecular units," meaning that it is not significantly larger than glucose, the simplest sugar in our bodies, which weighs 180, and only ten times heavier than a water molecule, which weighs 18. By comparison, consider the weight of LSD at 323, or of mescaline at 2II. DMT is closely related to serotonin (read more about "seratonin"), the neurotransmitter that psychedelics affect so widely. The pharmacology of DMT is similar to that of other well-known psychedelics. It affects receptor sites for serotonin in much the same way that LSD, psilocybin, and mescaline do. These serotonin receptors are widespread throughout the body and can be found in blood vessels, muscle, glands, and skin.

However, the brain is where DMT exerts its most interesting effects. There, sites rich in these DMT-sensitive serotonin receptors are involved in mood, perception, and thought. Although the brain denies access to most drugs and chemicals, it takes a particular and remarkable fancy to DMT. It is not stretching the truth to suggest that the brain "hungers" for it. The brain is a highly sensitive organ, especially susceptible to toxins and metabolic imbalances. A nearly impenetrable shield, the blood-brain barrier, prevents unwelcome agents from leaving the blood and crossing the capillary walls into the brain tissue. This defense extends even to keeping out the complex carbohydrates and fats that other tissues use for energy. The brain burns instead only the purest form of fuel: simple sugar, or glucose. However, a few essential molecules undergo "active transport" across the blood-brain barrier. Little specialized carrier molecules ferry them into the brain, a process that requires a significant amount of precious energy. In most cases, it is obvious why the brain actively transports particular compounds into its hallowed ground; amino acids required for maintaining brain proteins, for example, are allowed in.

Twenty-five years ago, Japanese scientists discovered that the brain actively transports DMT across the blood-brain barrier into its tissues. I know of no other psychedelic drug that the brain treats with such eagerness. This is a startling fact that we should keep in mind when we recall how readily biological psychiatrists dismissed a vital role for DMT in our lives. If DMT were only a insignificant, irrelevant by-product of our metabolism, why does the brain go out of its way to draw it into its confines? Once the body produces or takes in DMT, certain enzymes break it down within seconds. These enzymes, called monoamine oxidases (MAO), occur in high concentrations in the blood, liver, stomach, brain, and intestines. The widespread presence of MAO is why DMT effects are so short-lived. Whenever and wherever it appears, the body makes sure it is used up quickly. In a way, DMT is "brain food," treated in a manner similar to how the brain handles glucose, its precious fuel source. It is part of a "high turnover" system: quick in, quick used. The brain actively transports DMT across its defense system and just as rapidly breaks it down. It is as if DMT is necessary for maintaining normal brain function. It is only when levels get too high for "normal" function that we start undergoing unusual experiences.

Now that we have reviewed the history and science behind DMT, let's return to the most pressing question, one that no one has adequately answered: "What is DMT doing in our bodies?" More specifically, let's ask, "Why do we make DMT in our bodies?" My answer is: "Because it is the spirit molecule." What, then, is a spirit molecule? What must it do, and how might it do it? Why is DMT the prime candidate? Visionary artist Alex Grey has sketched an inspiring rendition of the DMT molecule. Alex's art helped me begin thinking about these questions much more clearly. Let's look at it carefully and consider how it reflects the necessary properties of such a chemical.

by Alex Grey

A spirit molecule needs to elicit, with reasonable reliability, certain psychological states we consider "spiritual." These are feelings of extraordinary joy, timelessness, and a certainty that what we are experiencing is "more real than real." Such a substance may lead us to an acceptance of the coexistence of opposites, such as life and death, good and evil; a knowledge that consciousness continues after death; a deep understanding of the basic unity of all phenomena; and a sense of wisdom or love pervading all existence.

A spirit molecule also leads us to spiritual realms. These worlds usually are invisible to us and our instruments and are not accessible using our normal state of consciousness. However, just as likely as the theory that these worlds exist "only in our minds" is that they are, in reality, "outside" of us and freestanding. If we simply change our brain's receiving abilities, we can apprehend and interact with them. Furthermore, keep in mind that a spirit molecule is not spiritual in and of itself. It is a tool, or a vehicle. Think of it as a tugboat, a chariot, a scout on horseback, something to which we can hitch our consciousness. It pulls us into worlds known only to itself. We need to hold on tight, and we must be prepared, for spiritual realms include both heaven and hell, both fantasy and nightmare. While the spirit molecule's role may seem angelic, there is no guarantee it will not take us to the demonic.

Why is DMT so attractive a candidate for being the spirit molecule? Its effects are extraordinarily and fully psychedelic. We have read some of the earliest reports of these properties from unprepared and unsuspecting research subjects who participated in the first clinical studies in the 1950s and 1960s. We will read much more about how truly mindboggling are DMT's effects in our own very experienced and well-prepared volunteers. Equally important is that DMT occurs in our bodies. We produce it naturally. Our brain seeks it out, pulls it in, and readily digests it. As an endogenous psychedelic, DMT may be involved in naturally occurring psychedelic states that have nothing to do with taking drugs, but whose similarities to drug-induced conditions are striking. While these states certainly can include psychosis, we must also include in our discussion conditions outside of mental illness. It may be upon endogenous DMT's wings that we experience other life-changing states of mind associated with birth, death, and near-death, entity or alien contact experiences, and mystical/spiritual consciousness.


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