Dear Science, This Week: DMT

Nicole Le, Columnist

Please do some reading on DMT and some of the studies that were conducted (legally) on U.S. patients in the late ’80s and early ’90s. I’m interested in your opinion on this supposed “spirit molecule.”

This is one of the more difficult questions to answer, and at least for this issue, I’ll have to keep the answer brief until I can speak to some scientists and science librarians far more informed than myself. However, once again I turned to Professor Tracie Paine, who actually studies substance abuse and schizophrenia (among other very cool topics) for help in this tricky brain science. The exact mechanisms by which hallucinogenics produce hallucinations are not entirely clear,in part because scientists are limited in how they can approach this in humans. Testing-wise it’s incredibly difficult, and you can’t just ask around, “So are you hallucinating or not?” But there seem to be at least two categories of hallucinogenic drugs: drugs that work by acting on the serotonergic system like DMT, LSD and psilocybin, and drugs like ket- amine and PCP that cause dissociative states. In Professor Paine’s words about dissociative states: “So you’re not necessarily seeing big purple elephants because it’s more an out-of-body-type experience. They’re actually used in research as models of schizophrenia because of their sort of psychotic, delusional aspects.” So DMT is thought to over activate serotonin (5HT) receptors, and PCP and ketamine block glutamate to result in excitation, but do both these path ways of excitation lead to the hallucinations? Scientists can’t really perform a study solely to understand how a drug works, so it’s hard to say, but there is some room in science for getting at these mechanisms by answering questions with a slightly different focus.

Professor Paine touched on how research regarding drugs like this generally works right now: “The research I’m related with is in schizophrenia, and because something like ketamine is an FDA-approved drug one of the requirements is that you have medical staff to monitor vital signs and things like adverse reactions. There’s a lot of information that goes into consent for people to take these sorts of drugs because of the risks that are associated, but if you can link your experiment to psychiatric conditions, then there’s research money there to understand the neuro-mechanisms, and if we understand them, we can better treat and fix abnormalities. To study DMT for the sake of understanding may not be a viable option, but really it’s just a matter of how you couch your research question.”

This is a really intriguing question, and personally, I’m interest- ed in finding out more about the past government-funded research that has involved psychedelics. Keep an eye out for that article!