Scientists have erected the brain to show how taking DMT affects human consciousness by significantly altering the electrical activity of the brain.
DMT (or dimethyltriptamine) is one of the major psychoactive ingredients in ayahuasca, a psychedelic beverage traditionally made from vines and leaves of the Amazon rainforest. The drink is usually prepared as part of a shamanic ceremony and associated with unusual and vivid visions or hallucinations.
The latest study is the first to show how the powerful psychedelic change of our wakeful brain waves – with researchers comparing its powerful effects to "dreaming while awake".
The work, led by researchers at the Imperial College Center for Psychedelic Research in London, published today in the journal Scientific Reports, may help explain why people taking DMT and ayahuasca experience intense visual imagery and experiential "experiences". “.
DMT is a naturally occurring chemical found in minimal amounts in the human brain, but also in large quantities in a large number of plant species worldwide.
Accounts from people taking DMT report intense visual hallucinations, often accompanied by strong emotional experiences, and even "discoveries" in what users describe as an alternate reality or dimension.
Clearly, these people are completely immersed in their experience – it's like dreaming just far more vivid and immersive, it's like dreaming, but with open eyes Christopher Timerman Center for Psychedelic Research
But scientists are interested in using the powerful psychoactive compound for research because it produces relatively short but intense psychedelic experiences, providing a window for collecting data on brain activity when consciousness is profoundly altered.
In the latest study, Imperial's team captured EEG measures from healthy participants in a clinical setting, in a placebo-controlled design.
A total of 13 participants received intravenous infusion of DMT at the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Imperial Clinical Research Center. The volunteers were provided with electrode caps to measure brain electrical activity before, during and after their infusion, with the peak of the psychedelic experience lasting about 10 minutes.
The analysis found that DMT significantly altered electrical activity in the brain, characterized by a significant alpha-wave disturbance – the dominant electrical rhythm of the human brain when we are awake. They also found a short-term increase in brain waves, usually associated with dreams, namely theta waves.
"Chaotic" brain activity
In addition to changes in brain wave types, they have also found that in general, brain activity has become more chaotic and less predictable – contrary to what is seen in states of diminished consciousness, such as in deep sleep or under general anesthesia.
"The changes in brain activity that accompany DMT are slightly different from those we see with other psychedelics, such as psychosibbin or LSD, where we mainly see only brainwave reduction," said lead author Christopher Timerman of the Center for Psychedelic Research .
"Here we saw an emerging rhythm that was present during the most intense part of the experience, which suggested that it appeared in the midst of otherwise chaotic patterns of brain activity.
"From the altered brainwaves and participants' reports, it is clear that these people are completely immersed in their experience – it's like dreaming only far more vivid and immersive, it's like dreaming but with open eyes."
Research with DMT can provide an important insight into the link between brain activity and consciousness, and this small study is the first step on that path. Dr. Robin Kuhart-Harris Center for Psychedelic Research
Mr Timerman explains that while it is unclear whether DMT may have clinical potential at this stage, the group hopes to continue its work by delivering a continuous infusion of DMT to broaden the window of psychedelic experience and to collect more data.
The team says future studies could include more sophisticated measurements of brain activity, such as fMRI, to show which regions and networks of the brain are affected by DMT. They believe that the visual cortex, a large area towards the back of the brain, is likely to be involved.
Dr Robin Kuhart-Harris, head of the Center for Psychedelic Research, said: "DMT is particularly intriguing psychedelic. Visual vitality and the depth of immersion, produced by high doses of the substance, appear to scale above what has been reported with more widely studied psychedelics such as psilocybin or "magic mushrooms".
"It is difficult to capture and communicate what it is to people experiencing DMT, but it is useful to dream when awakening or experiencing near death.
"It is our feeling that research with DMT can provide an important insight into the link between brain activity and consciousness and this small study is the first step along that path."
"Neural correlates of the DMT experience, estimated by a multivariate EEG" by Christopher Timerman et al. is published in the journal Scientific reports. DOI: 10.1038 / s41598-019-51974-4
Feature Image: From an EEG-output video showing the waves crashing in Alpha. Credit: Masahiro Kahata