Powerful psychedelic endogenous to mammalian brain

Written by Theo Kemp

The powerful psychedelic compound DMT has been demonstrated to be present and synthesized in mammalian brains.

A recent joint research project between Jimo Borjigin (University of Michigan; MI, USA) and Rick Strassman (University of New Mexico; NM, USA) discovered that the powerful psychedelic compound N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) is present and synthesized in the brains of rats. The study, published in Scientific Reports, also suggests synthesis of DMT could occur in the human brain.

Ayahuasca is a brewed substance that has traditionally been used by the indigenous people of South America as part of ancient religious ceremonies. The drink, made from the vine plant Banisteriopsis caapi, is said to bring about life-changing psychedelic experiences. In more recent times, tourists have been traveling to South America to participate in ‘ayahuasca retreats’ with the hopes of experiencing its positive effects.

The pineal gland, now understood to control the circadian rhythm through melatonin regulation, was historically thought to be the ‘seat of the soul’ according to Rene Descartes. Many people still believe the pineal gland to hold magical properties, with the main source of evidence being Strassman’s 1990’s hypothesis that the pineal gland synthesizes and secretes DMT.

Borjigin and Strassman embarked on a test of this hypothesis using microdialysis probes inserted into the pineal gland. The samples that were collected demonstrated the presence of DMT in the brains of rats. Subsequent analysis aimed to discover how and where DMT was synthesized in the brain.

The team then used in situ hybridization to localize target RNA strands in the brain. The two enzymes necessary for DMT production, aromatic-L-amino decarboxylase and indolethylamine-N-methyltransferase, were not only present in neurons of the pineal gland but also “found in other parts of the brain, including the neocortex and hippocampus that are important for higher-order brain functions including learning and memory,” commented Borjigin.

Levels of cerebral cortex DMT production were also demonstrated to be similar to other monoamine neurotransmitters, such as serotonin. However, during experimental cardiac arrest, DMT concentrations were seen to increase in the brains of some rats.

Having discovered DMT and the tissues responsible for its synthesis for the first time within the brain, Borjigin now hopes to uncover the function of naturally occurring levels of DMT in the brain.