The psychedelic drug DMT produces an effect in the brain similar to that felt by people undergoing near-death experiences, according to a new study.
A powerful hallucinogen, the substance is widely used for ceremonial purposes in South America as part of the brew known as ayahuasca.
Though the drug is illegal in most countries, its connection with spirituality is widely acknowledged and has earned it the nickname “the spirit molecule”.
Near-death experiences (NDEs) are psychological events often reported by those who think they are about to die, and can include out of body experiences, feelings of transitioning to another world and inner peace.
As similar feelings are often reported by DMT users, researchers at Imperial College London wanted to investigate how deep the connection between these experiences went.
In a trial of 13 healthy volunteers, doses of either the drug or a placebo were administered intravenously over the course of two sessions.
Their reactions to the drug were then compared with the experiences of 67 people who had previously reported NDEs and completed standardised questionnaires to document what had happened to them.
After their sessions, the DMT users were asked questions such as “Did scenes from your past come back to you?” and “Did you see, or feel surrounded by, a brilliant light?”.
The similarities between the responses of those who had taken DMT and those who had come close to death confirmed the anecdotal evidence from users of the psychedelic drug – that it is indeed able to mimic the effect of an NDE.
“Our findings show a striking similarity between the types of experiences people are having when they take DMT and people who have reported a near-death experience,” said PhD candidate Chris Timmermann, the first author of the study.
Ex-government drugs tsar Professor David Nutt, who also contributed to the research, said the data suggested “the well-recognised life-changing effects of both DMT and NDE might have the same neuroscientific basis.”
Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, who leads the Imperial College psychedelic research group and supervised the study, said: “DMT is a remarkable tool that can enable us to study and thus better understand the psychology and biology of dying.”
However, the researchers noted there were some subtle differences between the two experiences, with DMT users more likely to describe “entering an unearthly realm” rather than the more ominous “coming to a point of no return” reported by people experiencing NDEs.
The scientists said these distinctions may have been the result of the rigorous screening and preparation that preceded DMT dosing in these experiments.
The results of their study were published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.
Psychedelic drugs such as DMT and LSD have previously been linked with improvements in mental health, and scientists have suggested illegal drugs have the potential to become the next generation of antidepressants.
While the Imperial scientists said their results added an intriguing dimension to this story, they advised against any self-medication by the general public.
“We hope to conduct further studies to measure the changes in brain activity that occur when people have taken the compound,” said Mr Timmermann.
“This, together with other work, will help us to explore not only the effects on the brain, but whether they might possibly be of medicinal benefit in future.”