“Spirit Molecule” DMT Keeps Cells Alive When Oxygen Levels Are Low

DMT is a powerful hallucinogen that occurs naturally in the human body. Andrei Verner/Shutterstock

Ben Taub 19 Sep 2016, 16:31

Sometimes referred to as the “spirit molecule”, N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) is among the strongest hallucinogenic compounds on the planet. Strangely, it occurs naturally within the human body, as well as a huge number of other organisms, including much of the food that we eat. For years, scientists had no idea why the body produces this intensely psychedelic chemical or what role it plays, but new research has found that DMT helps to protect cells when oxygen levels are running low, preventing them from dying.

Though we often ingest DMT, it doesn’t normally produce any psychoactive effects because it is broken down by enzymes in our stomachs. However, some plants found in the Amazon rainforest contain molecules that inhibit these enzymes, and have been used for centuries by indigenous communities to unlock the full potential of DMT. Contained within a brew called ayahuasca, the molecule radically alters the consciousness of those who drink it, all of which adds to the mystery surrounding this surprisingly common compound.

Recently, researchers discovered that DMT binds to sigma-1 receptors, which are found throughout the human body and play a role in protecting cells from oxidative stress. This occurs when oxygen levels are too low, and can result in apoptosis, or cell death.

In a new study appearing in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience, researchers investigated the protective effects of DMT on neurons and immune cells under hypoxic conditions, which refers to an extreme lack of oxygen.

With oxygen concentrations of just 0.5 percent, apoptosis occurred in all cell types within six hours. However, when tiny amounts of DMT were added to the equation, survival times were drastically increased, suggesting that the molecule does indeed protect cells from oxidative stress.

DMT may be responsible for the white lights and other "mystical" visions that people sometimes report following near-death experiences, although this cannot yet be confirmed. lassedesignen/Shutterstock

The team repeated the task using cells that had been engineered to lack sigma-1 receptors, and found that this completely eliminated the protective effects of DMT, confirming that the compound works by activating these receptors.

Study co-author Attila Szabó told IFLScience that "when DMT binds to the sigma-1 receptor it dramatically increases the survival of neurons," which could have a number of clinical applications, including treating brain injuries. He added that "if you use sigma-1 agonists, including DMT, then this could extend the period of clinical death," thereby enabling brain cells to survive for longer and eventually recover.

Szabó also says that it is not yet known if the production of DMT is naturally increased as a type of defense mechanism when the body undergoes hypoxic stress - or if this might be responsible for the "mystical experiences" that people sometimes report following near-death experiences. However, he says that "if there is an increase in DMT at near-death situations, it may certainly lead to these changes in cognition."

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