Friday, July 17, 2015

What is DMT doing in our brains ? It may be helping us keep time.

DMT stands for N,N-Dimethyltryptamine. As far as organic chemicals go,  it is a fairly simple compound. It can be synthesized very easily and indeed is produced within many plants and animals. It is also a highly potent psychedelic.

It is one of the key ingredients in the hallucinogenic brews of South America e.g, Ayahuasca of Brazil. We have limited scientific evidence of its effects on the human brain. All this research has been banned because politicians got terribly scared of psychadelic drugs. Thank you, Ken Kesey and Timothy Leary, you have succeeded in making politicians shit in their pants. There's no world peace anywhere around the corner, thank you very much. "Turn on, Tune in, Drop out". Crap. Due to the heroic efforts of hippies and their political antagonists, we have banned relatively harmless drugs like LSD and DMT, while allowing dangerously psychoactive and addictive drugs like alcohol. Funny times this.

If you want to read some entertaining popular accounts of what happens when DMT is ingested, go to this article on the Vice Magazine. Generally, people report seeing little men or elves, or self-bouncing basketballs.

Anyway, thankfully some research has picked up now on the effect of psychadelic drugs on the brain. It seems that LSD has therapeutic effects in getting people rid of their drug addictions or alcohol abuse. Here is a popular science article by the Scientific American explaining this. It is ridiculous that by banning LSD, we  have arrested the development of a potential cure and condemned decades of men and women to drug addictions.

LSD got into our public consciousness earlier, but it is a rather unusual compound. But, DMT is a far simpler compound and omnipresent in many biological organisms. It is internally synthesized within our own brains. What is a highly potent psychadelic drug doing in our own brains, during day-to-day activities ?

At present, we have nothing but wild theories. Isn't it a shame?  One of the recent scientific experiments on the effects of DMT is done by one Rick Strassman, who investigated its relation to "near-death experiments". The narratives of people who went through near death experiments are similar to people who took DMT. Ergo,  DMT proves that post-death conscious experience exists, says Rick Strassman. He opines that DMT prepares our brain to bridge from conscious experience in this life to a post-death conscious experience. This is one such new age claptrap that is eagerly picked up by the bead-spinning, organic food buying populace.

I came across an interesting interview on Little Atoms from the British scientist David Luke. He gives a brief overview of DMT and scientific studies related to it. DMT is found in rather large quantities in our cerebral spinal fluid. It is thought to be produced in the lungs, in the eyes, or in the pineal glands. Nobody knows where !?  It is pretty silly that we are still speculating about such issues in our age of fMRI machines.

I think that the psychadelic experiences of DMT are quite entertaining, but they are very much a distraction. There has to be a mundane simple reason why DMT is used in the brain. What is it ?

My bet is that DMT is connected to the internal brain processes for keeping time. There are several internal biological clocks in our body that keep different types of circadian rhythms. Keeping time is essential to doing anything in this world, because we need to estimate velocity of objects as they move. Whether we try to bite into our food or try to escape predators, it is crucial that we keep time accurately and monitor the speed in which things are moving. The interesting thing is that we have not one clock, but multiple clocks that are related to the temporal resolution of events. Some of these clocks are accessible to conscious processes, whereas some are subconscious.

It is known that brain has at least two biological clocks. There is a scientific american article that explains this. One is in the Striatum and the other is in the hippocampus. The former keeps track of short durations of time, whereas the latter is responsible for longer durations. Hippocampus is also fundamental to the formation of long-term memory in the brain, as well as to our spatial orientation. It is known that as we animals evolved, we have expanded on our spatial memory capabilities to store more abstract concepts. As humans, we have highly evolved cognitive processes. Our cortical regions help us to prepare and monitor complex plans of how to do things and achieve goals in the world. In order to the execution of any of these plans, keeping time accurately is essential. The brain does this by monitoring internal physiological processes, like heart beating, blood running into the valves, respiration in the lungs etc. By keeping count of these processes and cross-checking between them, the brain knows how much time has passed.

My hypothesis is that DMT is a neurotransmitter that helps in effective monitoring of these physiological processes. These internal processes can be made into more complex models, for example, as programs running within the brain. These processes can keep track of small sensory-motor loops such as walking, talking etc. It is possible that DMT enables better signaling between these processes and thus helps bring out a global estimate of time in the brain.

Now what happens if a normal person is injected with a high dose of DMT ? This will doubtless cause a  heightened awareness of these internal processes. To the conscious brain, this might be manifested as little men, elves, or (not so surprisingly) as self-bouncing basket balls.

To prove or disprove this hypothesis is a fascinating scientific experiment. I hope these questions will be resolved soon as they will help us better understand neurodegenerative diseases and help improve human cognitive abilities. I hope politicians will not destroy this research this time !

PS: By the way, while we are on the new age circuit,  we may talk about the variety of associations for the pineal gland in Hindu mythography. It is associated with the Ajna chakra in Yoga. It is also associated with Shiva, who is responsible for keeping time in the universe. 

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