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DMT changes brainwaves to vivid ‘waking-dream’ state

Scientists have examined how taking DMT affects human consciousness, and found that it significantly alters the brain’s electrical activity.

DMT (or dimethyltryptamine) is a psychoactive constituent found in ayahuasca – the psychedelic brew that is made from various vines and leaves found in the Amazon rainforest. The drink is traditionally prepared and consumed as part of a shamanic ceremony, and is associated with vivid visions or hallucinations.

This most recent study is the first of its like to show how the psychedelic changes our waking brain waves. Researchers compare its potent effects to “dreaming while awake”.

The study was led by researchers from the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London and published recently in the journal Scientific Reports. Its contents may help to explain why people taking DMT and ayahuasca experience this waking-dream like experience and intense visions.

DMT is a naturally occurring chemical that can be found in tiny amounts in the human brain, and also in greater amounts in various plant species. People who have taken DMT have reported intense hallucinations, often accompanied by strong emotional experiences, and have even reported “breakthroughs” into what users have described as an alternate reality or dimension.

Scientists are using DMT for research as although the psychedelic experiences are intense, they are relatively short, and so a window of opportunity is provided for collecting data on brain activity when consciousness is profoundly altered.

In this latest study, the researchers collected EEG measures from healthy participants in a clinical setting, in a placebo-controlled design.

13 participants had an intravenous infusion of DMT and were fitted with electrode caps to measure the brain’s electrical activity before, during, and after the infusion. The peak of the psychedelic experience lasted around 10 minutes.

Analysis of the results showed that DMT altered the electrical activity in the brain, in particular a marked drop off in alpha waves – the brain’s dominant electrical rhythm when we are awake. There was additionally a short-lived increase in theta waves – brainwaves typically associated with dreaming.

Overall, brain activity became less predictable and more chaotic – this is noted as the opposite to what is seen in states of reduced consciousness.

“The changes in brain activity that accompany DMT are slightly different from what we see with other psychedelics, such as psilocybin or LSD, where we see mainly only reductions in brainwaves,” said lead author Christopher Timmermann, from the Centre for Psychedelic Research.

“Here we saw an emergent rhythm that was present during the most intense part of the experience, suggesting an emerging order amidst the otherwise chaotic patterns of brain activity. From the altered brainwaves and participants’ reports, it’s clear these people are completely immersed in their experience – it’s like daydreaming only far more vivid and immersive, it’s like dreaming but with your eyes open.”

Timmermann explained that although it’s unclear whether DMT may have any clinical potential, the team hope to continue their work by delivering a continues infusion of DMT in order to grow the window of the psychedelic experience and collect more data.

The researchers believe that future studies could also include more sophisticated measurements of the brain activity, such as fMRI, in order to collect data on which regions and networks of the brain are affected. They suspect that the visual cortex is likely to be involved.

Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, head of Centre for Psychedelic Research, said: “DMT is a particularly intriguing psychedelic. The visual vividness and depth of immersion produced by high-doses of the substance seems to be on a scale above what is reported with more widely studied psychedelics such as psilocybin or ‘magic mushrooms’.

“It’s hard to capture and communicate what it is like for people experiencing DMT but likening it to dreaming while awake or a near-death experience is useful.

“Our sense it that research with DMT may yield important insights into the relationship between brain activity and consciousness, and this small study is a first step along that road.”

‘Neural correlates of the DMT experience assessed with multivariate EEG’ by Christopher Timmermann et al. is published in the journal Scientific Reports. DOI: 10.1038/s41598-019-51974-4


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