Scientists Are Trying To Figure Out What The "Spirit Molecule" Does

Scientists in Hungary believe DMT may enable brain cells to survive when oxygen is cut off. Zerbor/Shutterstock
Ben Taub 10 Nov 2015, 21:55

White lights and mystical experiences are often reported by patients who die and are brought back to life. Though scientists have never fully been able to explain this phenomenon, it has regularly been suggested that it may be caused by the release of an intensely hallucinogenic molecule called N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) during death. Exactly why this occurs and what function DMT plays within the body are currently unknown, although a team of scientists at Debrecen University believe it may play a vital role in enabling brain cells to survive for longer periods when oxygen is cut off.

Though the team admits that their hypothesis is based on indirect evidence, lead researcher Ede Frecska believes that there are enough clues to suggest that this may well be the function of DMT in the body. For instance, DMT is among the few internally-produced compounds that bind to the sigma-1 receptor, which is believed to play a protective role during a type of cellular stress, called oxidative stress, that can arise from a lack of oxygen. Additionally, the fact that the brain has an active uptake method which enables the transport of DMT through the blood-brain barrier suggests that the organ must require it for something.

The team has therefore postulated that the role of DMT may be to protect cells from oxidative stress, thereby prolonging the period of time they can survive in the absence of oxygen and preventing brain damage. If this hypothesis is confirmed, the researchers believe it could have significant practical applications, enabling survivors of strokes and heart attacks to recover with minimal risk of losing their mental capacities.

Having now secured funding for the trial via a crowdfunding campaign through platform Walacea, the team intends to investigate the effect of DMT on oxidative stress in neural tissue cultures, with the hope of one day progressing to human trials. However, the fact that DMT is classified as a Schedule 1 substance by the US Drug Enforcement Administration – implying a high potential for abuse and no therapeutic value – may well present a barrier to research using live subjects.

This is in spite of an array of evidence previously put forward by Frecska that the molecule may play a vital role in immunoregulation. For instance, he suggests that DMT may help to coordinate the immune responses that fight cancer. This is based on the fact that the molecule's synthesis requires an enzyme called indolethylamine-N-methyltransferase (IMNT), which is produced by the imnt gene, the expression of which has been found to prevent the recurrence of malignant lung and prostate cancers. 

Of the few previous studies on DMT, the most famous were the ‘Spirit Molecule' experiments conducted by Rick Strassman of the University of New Mexico in the 1990s. Noting that many of his volunteers reported deeply mystical experiences such as those often associated with dying, he gave the compound its lofty nickname. However, after failing to identify a practical application for his research, he eventually decided to abandon the project. Yet if Frecska’s hypothesis is confirmed, we may now finally have a scientific explanation for the white lights that people see on their deathbed.

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