This is your brain on DMT — the ingredient in ayahuasca that can trigger near-death experiences
DMT, a chemical found in ayhuasca, produces an intense roughly 20-minute trip if it's injected.
Scientists say they newly understand how the drug acts on the brain from two types of imaging.
Researchers are studying DMT as a future depression treatment, and to get insights into human consciousness.
Scientists studying DMT, a psychoactive chemical that can induce near-death experiences, say brain images helped them glean new insights into how the drug works by making brain activity more chaotic or information-rich.
Plant-based N,N-Dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, which is a key component of the powerful psychedelic brew ayahuasca, is thought to have been used for thousands of years in ceremonies and for healing, particularly in south and central America, but has been co-opted as a "wellness" treatment and path to self discovery by Westerners in recent years.
Trips on DMT can be intense, with some reporting life-transforming "visits" to alternative realities, and others having near-death experiences. Many throw up.
In trials where DMT is injected, it produces much shorter trips, which last minutes.
Like other psychedelics — including psilocybin, which is found naturally in "magic" mushrooms — synthesized versions of the chemical have shown promise in trials, alongside psychotherapy, for treating severe depression.
Scientists are also using insights from studies on DMT, and other psychedelics, to understand the science that underpins human consciousness.
According to researchers at Imperial College London, the latest study — published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday — is the first to track brain activity before, during and after a DMT experience in such detail, by combining two imaging techniques.
The findings also support what scientists have previously observed — that psychedelics exert their effects by disrupting brain systems, according to the Imperial team.
People's brains appeared to switch to a more 'anarchic' mode on DMT
Robin Carhart-Harris, founder of the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London, UK, and a senior author on the paper said in the press release on Tuesday that during a DMT trip, which lasted 20 minutes on average in the study, the brains of participants appeared to switched a "more anarchic" mode of functioning.
"What we have seen is that DMT breaks down the basic networks of the brain, causing them to become less distinct from each other. We also see the major rhythms of the brain – that serve a largely inhibitory, constraining function – break down, and in concert, brain activity becomes more entropic or information-rich," Carhart-Harris, told The Guardian.
The recordings suggest the effects are most profound in areas of the brain linked with high-level, human-specific functions, such as imagination, The Guardian reported.
Scientists looked at the brain in detail and tracked its rhythms
To get the results, the team injected 20 healthy volunteers — aged 33, on average — with a high 20mg dose of the drug, while capturing detailed brain images with two types of scan: functional Magnetic resonance imaging (f-MRI) and electroencephalogram (EEG).
According to Carhart-Harris, now a professor in neurology at UCSF, f-MRIs provided the team with detail about the whole of the brain, including the deepest structures, and EEGs enabled them to view the brain's "fine-grained" rhythms. Images were taken from eight minutes before a trip to 20 minutes after. At the same time, participants intermittently rated how intense their experience was on a scale from 1 to 10.
"It will be fascinating to follow-up on these insights in the years to come. Psychedelics are proving to be extremely powerful scientific tools for furthering our understanding of how brain activity relates to conscious experience," Carhart-Harris said.
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