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Biology 202
2003 First Web Paper
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The Spirit Molecule (DMT): An Endogenous Psychoactive

Neesha Patel

"The feeling of doing DMT is as though one had been struck by noetic lightning. The ordinary world is almost instantaneously replaced, not only with a hallucination, but a hallucination whose alien character is its utter alienness. Nothing in this world can prepare one for the impressions that fill your mind when you enter the DMT sensorium."- McKenna.

N,N-dimethyltryptamine(DMT) is a psychoactive chemical in the tryptamine family, which causes intense visuals and strong psychedelic mental affects when smoked, injected, snorted, or when swallowed orally (with an MAOI such as haramaline). DMT was first synthesized in 1931, and demonstrated to be hallucinogenic in 1956. It has been shown to be present in many plant genera (Acacia, Anadenanthera, Mimosa, Piptadenia, Virola) and is a major component of several hallucinogenic snuffs (cohoba, parica, yopo). It is also present in the intoxicating beverage ayahuasca made from banisteriopsis caapi. This drink inspired much rock art and paintings drawn on the walls of native shelters in tribal Africa- what would be called 'psychedelic' art today (Bindal, 1983). The mechanism of action of DMT and related compounds is still a scientific mystery, however DMT has been identified as an endogenous psychadelic- it is a neurotransmitter found naturally in the human body and takes part in normal brain metabolism. 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," said one of the scientists. What intrigued me were the questions, how and why does DMT alter our perception so drastically if it is already present in our bodies?

DMT is known as the "spirit molecule" because it elicits with reasonable reliability, certain psychological states that are considered 'spiritual.' These are feelings of extraordinary joy, timelessness, and a certainty that what we are experiencing is more real than present day reality. DMT leads 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. The smoked DMT experience is short, but generally incredibly intense. Onset is fast and furious, and thus the term "mind-blowing" was used to describe the effect. It is a fully engaging and enveloping experience of visions and visuals, which vary greatly from one individual to the next. Users report visiting other worlds, talking with alien entities, profound changes in ontological perspective, fanciful dreamscapes, frightening and overwhelming forces, complete shifts in perception and identity followed by an abrupt return to baseline. "The effect can be like instant transportation to another universe for a timeless sojourn" (Alan Watts).

The physical and psychological effects of DMT include a powerful rushing sensation, intense open eye visuals, radical perspective shifting, stomach discomfort, overwhelming fear, color changes and auditory hallucination (buzzing sounds). One of the primary physical problems encountered with smoked DMT is the harsh nature of the smoke which can cause throat and lung irritation. Surprisingly however, DMT is neither physically addictive nor likely to cause psychological dependence (Szara, 1967).

Most subjects were reported to have had memorable positive experiences, however the possibility of unpleasant experiences is not ruled out. William Borroughs, a psychologist in London tried it and reported of it in most negative terms. Burroughs was working at the time on a theory of neurological geography and after trying DMT, he described certain cortical areas as 'heavenly', while others were 'diabolical'. In Burroughs' pharmacological cartography, DMT propelled the voyager into strange and decidedly unfriendly territory. The lesson however, was clear. DMT, like the other psychedelic keys, could open an infinity of possibilities. Set, setting, suggestibility and temperamental background were always present as filters through which the ecstatic experience could be distorted (Jacobs, 1987).

The brain however, is where DMT exerts its most interesting effects. The brain is a highly sensitive organ, especially susceptible to toxins and metabolic imbalances. In the brain, sites rich in 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. According to one scientist, "it is not stretching the truth to suggest that the brain hungers for it." 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 to keep out the complex carbohydrates and fats that other tissues use for energy, as the brain only uses glucose or simple sugars as its energy sources. Amino acids are among the few molecules that are transported across the blood brain barrier and thus to find that brain actively transported DMT into its tissues was astounding. DMT is part of a high turnover system and is rapidly broken down once it enters the brain, giving it the ability to exert its effects in a short period of time. Researchers labeled DMT as 'brain food,' as it was treated in a manner similar to how the brain handles glucose. In the early nineties, DMT was thought to be required by the brain in small quantities to maintain normal functioning and only when DMT levels crossed a threshold did a person undergo 'unusual experiences.' These unusual experiences involved a separation of consciousness from the body and when psychedelic effects completely replaced the mind's normal thought processes. This hypothesis led scientists to believe that 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. DMT was considered to be a possible 'schizotoxin' which could be linked to states such as psychosis and schizophrenia. "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" (Strassman, 2001).

Hallucinogenic drugs have multiple effects on central neurotransmission. In 1997, it was found that like LSD and Psilocybin, DMT has the property of increasing the metabolic turnover of serotonin in the body. Serotonin is found in specific neurons in the brain that mediate chemical neurotransmission. Axons of serotonergic neurons project to almost every part of the brain, affecting overall communication within the brain. Early in the research on hallucinogens, it was determined that hallucinogenic drugs structurally resemble serotonin (5-HT) and thus researchers thought that DMT bound itself to serotonin receptors in the cerebral cortex (Strassman, 1990).

Further, an increase in 5-hydroxy-IAA excretion suggests the involvement of serotonin in DMT action and elevated blood levels of indoleacetic acid (IAA) are seen during the time of peak effects, implying its role as a metabolite. The relationship between DMT and serotonin led researchers to become interested in the pineal gland. The pineal gland in humans regulates homeostasis of the body and body rhythms. A dysfunction could be associated with mental disorders presenting themselves as disturbances of normal sleep patterns, seasonal affective disorders, bipolar disorder, and chronic schizophrenia. Strassman proposed that the pineal gland, besides producing melatonin, is associated with 'unusual states of consciousness.' For example, it possesses the highest levels of serotonin in the body and contains the necessary building blocks to make DMT. The pineal gland also has the ability to convert serotonin to tryptamine, a critical step in DMT formation. In addition, 5-methoxy-tryptamine, which is a precursor of several hallucinogens, has been found in pineal tissue [Bosin and Beck, 1979; Pevet, 1983] and in the cerebrospinal fluid [Koslow, 1976; Prozialeck et al., 1978].

Every night Pinoline (made by the pineal gland), DMT and 5meoDMT are produced in the brain and are the causal agents of vivid dreams. The interior dialogue produced on a DMT trip leads scientists to believe that the language centers are also affected. Of late, various experiments have been conducted that show that DMT allows awareness of processes at a cellular or even atomic level. Could DMT smokers be tapping into the network of cells in the brain or into communication among molecules themselves?

According to Groff, the major psychedelics do not produce specific pharmacologic states (i.e-toxic psychosis) but are unspecific amplifiers of mental processes (Groff, 1980). At the same time, the identification of 5HT2 receptors as possibly being involved in the action of hallucinogens has provided a focal point for new studies. Is there a prototypic classical hallucinogen? Until we have the answers to such questions, we continue to seek out the complex relationship between humans and psychoactives.


Szara, S. Hallucinogenic Drugs- Curse or Blessing? Am J Psychiatry 123: 1513-1518, 1967.

Strassman, R. Human Hallucinogenic Drug Research: Regulatory, Clinical and Scientific Issues. Brain Res. 162. 1990.

B.L. Jacobs. 1987. How Hallucinogenic Drugs Work. "American Scientist". 75:385-92.

M.C. Bindal, S.P. Gupta, and P. Singh. 1983. QSAR Studies on Hallucinogens. 'Chemical Reviews'. 83:633-49.

Groff, S. Realms of the Human Unconcious: Observations from LSD Research. Jeremy Tarcher Inc., LA. 1980, pp 87-99.


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