A new study from Imperial College London has found significant overlap between the experiences reported by subjects who have had near-death experiences, and volunteers administered with a powerful psychedelic compound called DMT. The research builds on a long-standing body of work hypothesizing a strange correlation between the two experiences.

Dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, was first synthesized in the 1930s but it wasn't until the 1950s that its psychoactive properties were finally discovered when Hungarian scientist Stephen Szara began experimenting with the compound. At the time, Szara was unable to obtain other psychedelic compounds for research so he began working with DMT after reports that the compound was present in many entheogenic potions used in traditional shamanic rituals.

Szara's initial oral experiments produced no effect, so in the spirit of self-administered medical research, he gave himself an intramuscular injection of the compound in 1956. Over several days he slowly increased the dosage until he reached a full threshold psychedelic experience.

"I remember feeling intense euphoria at the higher dose levels that I attributed to the excitement of the realization that I, indeed, had discovered a new hallucinogen," Szara recounted of the experience back in 2014.

The "businessman's trip"

For the next decade, DMT intrigued psychedelic researchers. It was profoundly powerful yet incredibly short-acting. Injected or smoked, it overcame users in just minutes, but was also rapidly metabolized by the body, returning the user to normality within 30 or 40 minutes. For this reason it became anecdotally known as the "businessman's trip" – a psychedelic one could effectively take in a lunch break.

The strange mystery of DMT only deepened as researchers subsequently found trace amounts of the compound in human blood and urine, suggesting it could have a potentially endogenous source, making it the only psychedelic substance naturally produced within the human body. Since the 1970s many scientists have speculated the pineal gland to be the primary endogenous source of DMT in a human body. These speculations, often misconstrued as fact, led to many ambitious hypotheses around the role endogenously produced DMT plays in either dreaming or near-death experiences.

Perhaps the most fascinating work on DMT came from American researcher Rick Strassman, who administered the drug in experimental settings to human volunteers hundreds of times in the early 1990s. Strassman's work was ultimately chronicled in his book DMT: The Spirit Molecule, where he described the many varied experiences his subjects underwent over the course of those experiments.

Strassman's work documented a compelling array of bizarre subjective experiences, but his overriding hypothesis was that DMT is produced in the pineal gland and released into the body during both dream and death states. One more extreme speculative hypothesis suggests the substance is flushed into the human body at the time of death for a yet to be explained reason.

Despite the constant speculation it still hasn't been effectively shown that the human brain actively produces, or administers, DMT into the body. A 2013 study that Strassman was involved in, did for the first time identify the presence of DMT in a rat brain. This was the first time the compound had been effectively found within a mammalian brain but what biological function the compound actually has is still of great debate.

The psychedelic near-death experience

The new study from Imperial College London is the first to explicitly interrogate the relationship between DMT and near-death experiences (NDEs). The experiment administered DMT to 13 healthy volunteers, with each subject receiving two doses, one active and one placebo, separated by at least one week.

The primary outcome measure was recorded using the Greyson NDE scale, a 16-question test that has been widely used to measure the veracity and scale of near-death experiences for over 30 years. Impressively, all 13 participants scored above the standard threshold for a NDE after their DMT experiences. Ten of the 16 questions in the test were rated as significantly higher than placebo on the Greyson scale, suggesting the subjective experience of DMT was notably similar to that of a near death-experience.

"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," concludes Chris Timmermann, first author on the new research.

Of course, this study isn't a definitive answer on the relationship between DMT and NDEs, but rather simply an affirmation of the phenomenological similarities between the two experiences. The researchers suggest we need a better understanding into the neurobiology of dying and this study may help demonstrate that psychedelics could be a useful experimental model.

Plenty more work is being done to explore the strange influence of DMT on the human brain, including a brain imaging project specifically studying the neurological effects of a continuous DMT infusion. But the mystery of why DMT appears naturally in our bodies still remains, and the highly speculative idea that the compound is some kind of natural death drug is profoundly compelling.

"Why a substance with psychedelic properties is recruited, rather than say an endogenous opioid or endorphin which would simply induce oblivion is a very interesting question," asks Strassman in a recent interview with Motherboard. "My sense is that as consciousness 'leaves' the body, DMT may be mediating that process, and reflect what people are actually experiencing as they die. What happens after that, of course, is anyone's guess."

Catch up with our previous investigations into Psychedelic Medicine, examining psilocybin and the magic of mushrooms, and the curious case of ketamine.

The new research was published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

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