New research published in Scientific Reports indicates that the rat brain is capable of synthesizing and releasing a powerful psychedelic drug called dimethyltryptamine (DMT). Scientists suspect that the same could be true in humans.
“I was initially interested in pineal DMT because I thought DMT may contribute to melatonin production in the pineal gland, which was my main research topic in the early 2000s,” said study author Jimo Borjigin, an associate professor in the departments of molecular and integrative physiology, and neurology at the University of Michigan.
The pineal gland is a small structure inside the brain that influences the sleep cycle by secreting the hormone melatonin. Trace amounts of DMT had been detected in the pineal gland and other parts of the body. But whether DMT was actually biosynthesized in the mammalian brain was unclear.
“As I worked on our first DMT paper (Barker et al., 2013) and the first paper on the dying brain (Borjigin et al., 2013), I thought DMT may be one of the neurochemicals associated with near-death experiences. Thus my interests in DMT were strengthened since 2013.”
In 2013, Borjigin and her colleagues collected a sample that was analyzed for — and confirmed — the presence of DMT using a process in which microdialysis tubing was inserted into a rat brain through the pineal gland.
In their latest study, the researchers used a process called in situ hybridization, which uses a labeled complementary strand of DNA to localize a specific RNA sequence in a tissue section.
“With this technique, we found brain neurons with the two enzymes required to make DMT,” Borjigin said. But even when the pineal gland was removed, the brain appeared to be able to produce DMT in several regions, including the neocortex and hippocampus.
“DMT is produced naturally from neurons of the mammalian brain and may contribute to some aspects of higher-order brain functions (such as conscious information processing, or learning/memory, etc), though much remains to be explored experimentally,” Borjigin told PsyPost.
The researchers also found that levels of DMT increased in the rat brains after inducing cardiac arrest. But they still have much to learn about the substance.
“We will need to demonstrate that DMT is a neurotransmitter; regulation of DMT synthesis and release will be a hot topic; we need to know if animals exhibit any detectable deficits when DMT is knocked-out; Is DMT dysregulation associated with any human disorders without the endogenous DMT? DMT’s relationship with near-death experiences is still in need of careful study,” Borjigin said.
“Now that we confirmed the production of endogenous DMT in the mammalian brain, the progression of our future DMT research will depend critically on the availability of funding support, private or public. I hope the kind of publicity like this one could help us on this regard.”
The study, “Biosynthesis and Extracellular Concentrations of N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) in Mammalian Brain” was authored by Jon G. Dean, Tiecheng Liu, Sean Huff, Ben Sheler, Steven A. Barker, Rick J. Strassman, Michael M. Wang, and Jimo Borjigin.