Scientists unlock effect of psychedelic drug DMT on the human brain

The powerful psychedelic can give you a near-death experience. Here is how it affects your brain on the inside.
Rupendra Brahambhatt
New study reveals how DMT psychedelic alters perception of reality.
New study reveals how DMT psychedelic alters perception of reality.


Dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, is a powerful psychedelic whose effect on the human brain lasts for only some minutes, but in that short span of time, the user experiences some high-level mental changes.

For the first time, a team of researchers from the Imperial College of London has monitored these changes in detail. They administered a high dose of DMT to 20 healthy individuals who voluntarily participated in their study. 

The researchers examined the brain activity of the participants before, during, and after the DMT test. Here is what they found.

How does DMT affect the human brain?   

According to the researchers, DMT is very different from other popular hallucinogens like LSD. It may take a user into a more immersive, intense, vivid, or dangerous state of mind. For instance, people high on DMT could feel as if they are having a near-death experience. 

They could also claim that they are traveling through different dimensions or alternate realities. To find out how and why this happens, the researchers used two brain mapping technologies; electroencephalography (EEG) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). 

The participants experienced the effect of DMT for a total of 20 minutes during the study, and in between, they were often asked to rate the intensity of their experience on a scale of one to 10.

The brain maps revealed that DMT significantly altered brain areas that were linked to high-level functions like imagination. In such areas, the drug actually enhanced communication and connectivity between different parts of the brain.  

“What we have seen with DMT is that activity in highly evolved areas and systems of the brain that encode especially high-level models becomes highly dysregulated under the drug, and this relates to the intense drug ‘trip’,” said Dr. Chris Timmerman, first author of the study.

Some previous studies on psychedelics have also reported that hallucinogens strengthen brain connectivity and refer to it as “ increased global functional connectivity.” However, this is the first study to highlight that parts associated with high-level human-specific functions are the ones that undergo maximum change under the influence of DMT.

Why is it important to study the effects of DMT on humans?

DMT is naturally found in plants like Diplopterys cabrerana and Mimosa tenuiflora. Interestingly,  some reptiles and fishes also carry this psychedelic substance in their body. In some parts of south and central America, some cultural and religious groups use DMT to perform different kinds of traditional ceremonies and also make vine out of this psychedelic substance.  

However, the importance of DMT is not just limited to rituals and ceremonies. The study authors believe that since DMT can disrupt high-level human brain functions, it can allow scientists to understand the human brain better. Its effects on the brain shed light on how our mind actually functions when it’s in an unconscious state. 

Senior study author Robin Carhart-Harris said, “Psychedelics are proving to be extremely powerful scientific tools for furthering our understanding of how brain activity relates to conscious experience.” 

While explaining this further, he added, “Our results revealed that when a volunteer was on DMT, there was a marked dysregulation of some of the brain rhythms that would ordinarily be dominant. The brain switched its mode of functioning to something altogether more anarchic. It will be fascinating to follow up on these insights in the years to come.” 

The study is published in the journal PNAS.

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