An ingredient in the psychedelic brew ayahuasca causes "waking dreams" by significantly changing brain activity, a new study says.
Ayahuasca is a tea or brew made from vines and leaves of the Amazon rainforest. DMT (or dimethyltryptamine) is one of its main psychoactive components. Typically prepared as part of a shamanic ceremony, the drink can cause unusual and vivid visions.
People who have taken DMT report intense visual hallucinations often accompanied by strong emotional experiences and even journeys into an alternate reality or dimension.
Researchers are interested in DMT because its intense psychedelic results offer a chance to learn more about brain activity during states of altered consciousness.
This British study included 13 volunteers who were given an intravenous infusion of DMT. Their brains' electrical activity was monitored before, during and after their infusion. The peak of the psychedelic experience lasted about 10 minutes.
The monitoring showed that DMT significantly altered electrical activity in the brain. The changes included a large drop in alpha waves, the brain's dominant electrical rhythm when people are awake. There was also a brief increase in brain waves typically associated with dreaming (theta waves).
"The changes in brain activity that accompany DMT are slightly different from what we see with other psychedelics, such as psilocybin or LSD, where we see mainly only reductions in brain waves," said lead author Christopher Timmermann. He's a doctoral candidate at the Center for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London.
Along with those changes, brain activity became more chaotic and less predictable. That's the opposite of what happens in states of reduced consciousness, such as in deep sleep or under general anesthesia, according to the study.
"Here we saw an emergent rhythm that was present during the most intense part of the experience, suggesting an emerging order amidst the otherwise chaotic patterns of brain activity," Timmermann said in a college news release. "From the altered brain waves and participants' reports, it's clear these people are completely immersed in their experience -- it's like daydreaming only far more vivid and immersive, it's like dreaming but with your eyes open."
He said it's unclear whether DMT may have any potential for medical use. The next step in this research is to give volunteers a continuous infusion to prolong the psychedelic experience and collect more data. The study was published Nov. 19 in the journal Scientific Reports.
The Alcohol and Drug Foundation in Australia has more on ayahuasca.
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