It’s difficult to recall the last time that I had a great meal and made the generic claim of “I love food.” Generally speaking, it’s either the restaurant that receives compliments, the type of meal that receives praise, or homage is paid to the chef directly. This is why it’s so amusing and yet perplexing when people seem to generically pronounce their “love for science” when an interesting study is published.

Similar to the cooks of a great meal, it is humans, people, scientists who actually carry out the experiments. These are the people who toil away in obscurity for years doing the hard lab work with little to no recognition for their efforts. I believe that “science” gets way too much credit while real scientists (not celebrities in lab coats) should be the ones getting the credit and publicity of groundbreaking research.

I believe that the recent study on DMT published in Scientific Reports is one of the most important studies in 2019, and all the scientists involved deserve wide recognition and credit for their efforts. Credit needs to go to the following: lead author and fast-rising DMT researcher Jon Dean, Dr Jimo Borjigin, Dr Steven Barker, Dr Rick Strassman, Dr Michael M. Wang, Dr Tiecheng Liu, Dr Sean Huff, and Dr Ben Sheler.

If Dr Rick Strassman can be considered the “King” of DMT research, Dr Borjigin can be considered the “Queen”.

I recently had a chance to talk with Dr Jimo Borjigin, who is leading the scientific efforts into understanding the mysterious compound DMT. She now works at the University of Michigan. Trained at Johns Hopkins University, where she received her PhD, Dr Borjigin has published groundbreaking research on increased brain oscillatory speeds following cardiac arrest, the discovery of DMT production in the pineal gland of live rats, and now the most recent study that observed comparable levels of DMT to common neurotransmitters (dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine) in the brain. If Dr Rick Strassman can be considered the “King” of DMT research based on his studies from the early 1990s and his wildly popular book DMT: The Spirit Molecule, Dr Borjigin can be considered the “Queen” based on her extremely important work in the field since 2012.

JC: So, while many people have heard the backstory of how Dr Rick Strassman got involved in DMT research due to his book The Spirit Molecule, not many know about how you got your start in this field. Would you mind giving us a little bit of background as to how all of this came about?

Jimo: In the mid-2000s, I had been working on the pineal gland and studying how dynamic secretion of melatonin from the pineal gland teaches us about how the circadian clock works. I was also teaching our graduate students about the pineal gland. One day in 2011, when I googled the word “pineal gland” (hoping to find some cool pictures to include for my class teaching), I came across Rick Strassman’s book (DMT: The Spirit Molecule) and the documentary about the book. I was very surprised when I heard Rick saying that DMT was made and secreted in the pineal gland, since I knew nothing about it. I emailed Rick directly and asked him for the evidence that his statement was based on and was told that it was just his speculation. I told Rick that I was interested in testing his theory, as we were routinely performing pineal microdialysis experiments, and I believed that if DMT is ever secreted from the pineal gland, we should have them in the dialysates. Rick was nice and encouraging; he introduced me to Steve Barker who routinely analyzed controlled substances in his lab, and the rest was history.

JC: Good stuff, so let’s just dive right into it. You did a really big study recently. I’m obviously biased, but I think that this is one of the most important studies of the year. Your research team found the circulating natural DMT at similar levels to commonly studied neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine. Where do you hypothesize that the DMT is synthesized in the brain?

Jimo: Oh, wow (laughing). Thank you; I’m very flattered. Well, it’s within tissue in the extracellular space. We didn’t really stick a probe only into the brain ventricles where the cerebrospinal fluid is in abundance. We stuck our probe into the brain tissue where neurons are packed. So it is definitely extracellular. So these are not the quantities within individual cells. I’m assuming that DMT is a neurotransmitter, and it might actually be packed and stored inside the vesicles within neurons. The release is only activity-dependent if DMT is truly a neurotransmitter. The basal levels of the 3 monoamine neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine), which the DMT concentrations were compared with, were also assayed the same way. This means that they inserted a microdialysis probe into the brain to measure the basal level of those three neurotransmitters, which is why we think DMT is comparable.

Alex Grey’s artworks have become iconic of DMT experiences. See here for a general introduction to DMT.

JC: Where do you hypothesize that the DMT was synthesized when taking measurements at the cerebral cortex?

Jimo: We believe that DMT is made in the neurons.

JC: Some people think that this study puts the pineal gland theory to rest. I feel like that’s not entirely correct.

Jimo: I think you’re right.

JC: This is the first study that actually shows that the human pineal gland has INMT/AADC in order to make DMT.

Jimo: Yes.

JC: While the extracellular levels of DMT in the cerebral cortex were similar between normal and pinealectomized rats, is it possible that the pineal-produced DMT has a greater effect in the third ventricle or thalamus region in comparison to the cerebral cortex levels?

Jimo: Well, all I can say is that the neurocortex can produce DMT in the absence of a pineal gland. Our study did not really address the issue of pineal DMT production. The fact is that in our data, in the absence of the pineal gland, the DMT levels go up (not significantly, though). Our data is relatively crude based on the fact that we surgically removed the pineal gland. When you yank the pineal gland out you disturb the blood-brain barrier a bit since the pineal gland is part of the blood-brain barrier preventing things from going in and out. So we don’t know why it goes up in the absence of the pineal gland. I haven’t given it too much thought, but all we’re showing is that the brain doesn’t really require the pineal gland to produce DMT. The pineal may produce a small level of DMT, but it’s clearly not contributing a huge amount. If the pineal gland produced three times as much, then we should have seen a difference. I strongly believe that the cortex (where we used our microdialysis probe) makes and secretes DMT independent of the pineal gland. The pineal gland is not essential and is not required. It doesn’t mean the pineal gland itself cannot make DMT since all the machinery is there. But we had a long paragraph in the discussion part of the paper discussing why we think the pineal gland may not contribute much to DMT production.

JC: Are there any neurotransmitters or any endogenous biochemical(s) for that matter that have been identified to be rat-specific in comparison to that of humans as far as we know? What I mean by this is whether there is any data to suggest that rats produce different biochemicals than humans in the brain or throughout the body?

Jimo: Usually when you go up the evolutionary tree, it is higher order animals, such as humans, that have something that the rats don’t have, and it doesn’t go the other way around. Especially since both rats and humans are mammals, it’s highly unlikely. On the other hand, if you go down to invertebrates or lower vertebrates who have very unique habitats, they may have stuff that humans don’t need. So my answer is NO, not as far as I know. There are genes and proteins found only in humans, not in mice or rats. I am not aware of any genes or proteins present only in rats but not in humans.

JC: So that would mean that for someone to claim that DMT is not found in the human brain because the research took place only in live rats (although you took in vitro sampling of human brains that observed the same exact enzymes that rats produced in order to synthesize DMT), they would be making claims that fall outside the scope of scientific data to date? 

Jimo: Unless I’m mistaken, Dr Steven Barker has already measured DMT in the brains of deceased individuals and trace amounts in their blood. This could be a question for Steven regarding the solid evidence of showing DMT is found and collected from humans. All reasonable people would agree that if human brains are found to express both INMT and AADC, it is highly likely that DMT will be made in the human brain. The next step would be to stick a probe in a live human’s brain so we could monitor DMT at a level comparable to other neurotransmitters, but usually that level of proof is rarely demanded for research because it is so unusual to be able to get samples using such invasive techniques. No one would want to volunteer for that kind of experiment being that it comes with some kind of risk. So I don’t believe it is necessary. Having experimental proof from humans would certainly help, but it is not always feasible to do so.

JC: I think all the hard-nosed “skeptics” continuing to question whether human brains produce DMT following this recent study should volunteer for the brain-probe study.

Jimo: (laughing) But remember, we don’t want to really make any enemies. My take is that unless you have evidence against the human brain DMT hypothesis there isn’t much to say. We are doing our best effort.

Dr Borjigin checking DMT research data with a smile
Dr Borjigin checking DMT research data with a smile!

JC: Switching gears… One of the biggest issues I’ve seen is that people are so excited about psychedelic research, and there seems to be a decent amount of funding for the field, but I think that the endogenous research is even more interesting.

Jimo: I think so too (laughing). I agree with you there.

JC: Much of the psychedelic research these days focuses on fMRI studies, so it seems like cerebral blood flow is the predominant measure of perceived activity. However, in a yet to be published interview I did with Dr Mauro Zappaterra, he stated that based on his research, cerebrospinal fluid can act as a signaling medium, being that it can carry the neurotransmitters and signaling throughout the brain on a global level. This would seem to add another layer of complexity in terms of analyzing brain activity when comparing fMRI to EEG. What are your thoughts regarding this?

Jimo: FMRI monitors changes associated with blood flow. Robin Carhart-Harris has done psychedelic work with fMRI, and the subjects actually show the lowering of fMRI measures. It’s a different mode of regulation, so we don’t really know. I wish when Rick Strassman did his study he had everybody monitored for EEG or fMRI to see what happened to them. My guess is that study is coming and somebody is working on that. We can easily do an EEG study on animals, but we just cannot ask them what they experience. Sooner or later it will have to be done.

JC: Yeah. Would you consider private funding?

Jimo: Oh, yeah, totally.

JC: Do you have any interest in replicating this recent study but also measuring levels of 5-MeO-DMT and Bufotenine?

Jimo: Oh, yeah. Once again this is another area that is wide open that one can do. It all depends, once again, on funding. Right now people are lined up to want to work in my lab. Every year, lots of graduate students contact me for a position my lab; and the first thing I tell them is: “I am sorry that I can’t take you in my lab because I don’t have NIH funding for DMT research.”

JC: (cutting in) Horrible.

Jimo: (laughing) That’s been the standard answer for several years now. I just recently accepted a very good student who insisted on joining my group regardless of the lack of NIH funding. In any case, we try to collaborate with people who have grants to make it happen; but the key is to have research funding to support the DMT endeavor.

JC: Absolutely. That’s one of the most frustrating things I see in terms of scientific research. There’s so much money that goes into genetic research and things of that nature, but there’s so little funding that goes into endogenous DMT research by comparison. If it were up to you, what would you say are the top five studies that need to take place within this field that you are specifically focused on right now?

Jimo: The first one is that DMT is actually a neurotransmitter. After that, we would like to know how the DMT synthesis is controlled and how its release is regulated. My prediction is that some of the regulatory mechanisms in charge of DMT release might be dysfunctional in patients with psychiatric disorders that feature hallucinations. We know that DMT has hallucinatory properties, so it’s not too far-fetched to predict the link there. The potential role of DMT in regard to near-death consciousness remains to be experimentally tested, explored with the gamma waves as you discussed in your blog. That’s something we can easily do to demonstrate that endogenous DMT can stimulate gamma waves.

What I’d like to emphasize is how important collaboration is to make science happen, not just the funding. If Rick Strassman had not introduced me to Steve Barker, our first DMT paper (Barker et al., 2013) would not have materialized, and Jon Dean, the first author of our DMT paper and a very dedicated graduate student passionate about psychedelic research, would not have joined my team to produce the current publication (Dean et al., 2019). Collaboration with Mike Wang (a co-author on the Dean paper) on the role of stroke on sleep and circadian rhythms in rats allowed us to discover the surge of neurochemicals in the brain of dying rats, which ultimately led to the discovery of the surge of gamma activities in the dying rats. Collaboration with George Mashour’s group was essential for the computational analysis of the brain’s electrical signals (Borjigin et al., 2013). Collaboration with Bob Kennedy’s laboratory allowed the high resolution (every 60-sec) measurement of neurotransmitters in dying rats. All I can say in closing is that I have been extremely fortunate to be able to work with these fantastic scientists. Teamwork rocks!

View the longer version of the interview here.

If you want to financially support Dr Borjigin and her team of scientists regarding endogenous DMT research efforts at the Univeristy of Michigan, you can donate directly to the cause by clicking here

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John Chavez
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