What Role Does DMT Play in a Psychedelic Renaissance?

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SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN– You know that psychedelics are making a comeback when the New York Times says so on page 1. In “Hallucinogens Have Doctors Tuning In,” John Tierney reports on how doctors at schools like Harvard, Johns Hopkins, UCLA and NYU are testing the potential of psilocybin and other hallucinogens for treating depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism—and for inducing spiritual experiences. 

Tierney’s brisk overview neglects to mention the most mind-bending of all psychedelics: dimethyltryptamine, or DMT. It was first synthesized by a British chemist in the 1930s, and its psychotropic properties were discovered some 20 years later by the Hungarian-born chemist Stephen Szara, who later became a researcher for the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Why is DMT so fascinating? For starters, DMT is the only psychedelic known to occur naturally in the human body. In 1972, the Nobel laureate Julius Axelrod of the National Institutes of Health discovered DMT in human brain tissue, leading to speculation that the compound plays a role in psychosis. Research into that possibility—and into psychedelics in general–was abandoned because of the growing backlash against these compounds.

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© Scientific American, 2010

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