New Brain-Wave Study Shows How DMT Alters Our Consciousness

Some trippy art I found on Flickr (Illustration: Adamo Corazza, Flickr)

Scientists have completed the first ever placebo-controlled investigation of the effects of the hallucinogen DMT on resting brain activity, according to a new study.

Dimethyltryptamine is a psychedelic drug, famous as the active ingredient in the brew ayahuasca. Past research has studied ayahuasca, but there aren’t many examples of controlled laboratory experiments on the DMT molecule itself. These new results demonstrate the way that the molecule works on the brain, producing a signature of brain waves that looks a whole lot like a waking dream.

“These are interesting rhythms, we also find them when we are dreaming or during different stages of sleep,” Christopher Timmermann, the study’s first author from Imperial College, London, told Gizmodo. “There’s an interesting similarity that might point towards a common mechanism that these states might have.”

The team tested seven men and six women, all of whom had taken a hallucinogen in the past. They hooked up each volunteer to brain wave-measuring electroencephalogram electrodes, or EEG. Each participant received an intravenous injection of either DMT or a placebo, and then rated how intense their trip was once per minute for 20 minutes after receiving the dose while the scientists took data. One participant’s EEG data wasn’t included because they moved around too much during the experiment.

Collections of brain cells produce oscillating signals, producing regular waves of activity in several frequency bands, including, in order of frequency from low to high: delta, theta, alpha, beta, low gamma, and high gamma. These frequencies are linked to various functions, though exactly how is up for interpretation. One such frequency, the alpha frequency, is more prevalent when our eyes are closed and less prevalent when they’re open. The people on DMT demonstrated significantly less alpha and beta activity but more diverse kinds of signals more generally than those who’d received the placebo injection, according to the study published in Scientific Reports.

These results revealed that DMT users were experiencing brain wave patterns as if they were in a waking dream, said Timmermann. This is consistent with a previous, non-placebo controlled study of smoked DMT, a study of ayahuasca consumed as a tea, and research into other psychedelics, reports Ars Technica.

Understanding the effects of psychedelics is important in that it can help us learn about the basics of neuroscience and brain function, Timmermann said. These drugs can induce different states of consciousness, other than being awake or dreaming, that aren’t well understood.

As for applications, scientists are already researching the potential medical applications of DMT. One recent placebo-controlled study in humans found that ayahuasca had antidepressant effects, and another found similar mood-boosting effects when giving rats microdoses of DMT.

More work needs to be done to more closely scrutinize some of the wave patterns that the researchers observed and see if they contain further importance. Scientists will continue researching these new realms of consciousness the affects of these states on our wellbeing. According to the paper: “By observing what is lost and gained when consciousness transitions in extreme ways, psychedelic neuroscience promises to enrich our knowledge and appreciation of mind-brain relationships in the broadest range of contexts, while inspiring as yet untold applications.”

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