Medicine, Alchemy & DMT: A conversation with Rick Strassman, M.D.
From 1990 through 1995, Rick Strassman, MD conducted DEA approved clinical research at the University of New Mexico where he was tenured Associate Professor of Psychiatry. There he gave over 400 DMT injections to 60 human volunteers in a hospital setting, charting the results. DMT is an endogenous psychedelic, first discovered in the human body in 1965. Research was cut short when DMT became a Schedule I drug in the 1960's, making it illegal. Dr. Strassman's book 'DMT: The Spirit Molecule' describes renewed medical interest surrounding DMT as well as the trials and tribulations surrounding research in this controversial area. As a sideline, DMT's connection to the pineal gland, mysticism and the near death experience are explored. Dr. Strassman also postulates that UFO and alien-abduction phenomena may be related to accidental releases of endogenous DMT in the body. I spoke to Rick Strassman, MD in late April 2001 over the release of his new book 'DMT: The Spirit Molecule'. As we spoke, his book had just sold out after four months and was being reprinted - as success I was happy to share with him. - Thomas Lyttle
Thomas Lyttle: what are you reading these days, Dr. Strassman? What should the thinking person be thinking about, regarding DMT and consciousness?
Rick Strassman, MD: You really want to know? 'Kaddish' by Leon Weiseltier. The Artscroll translation and commentary on the 'Chumash' (the Five Books of Moses [Torah] and accompanying readings from the prophets). A little bit of 'Secrets of the Hebrew Alphabet,' by the good folks at Artscroll. 'What's Bothering Rashi?' by Avigdor Bonchek, a popularized version of the 11th century French Jewish exegete. I know - I've gotten pretty far afield. Nevertheless, I've begun reading a review copy of Karl Jansen's new book on ketamine, and am enjoying it immensely.
Now to your other question: the thinking person ought to be wondering why we have DMT in our brains, and what it says about the reality of, and explicable mechanism for, the most imaginable and unimaginable experiences of which the human mind is capable. The presence of DMT in all our brains suggests that every one of us has access to the full range of experiences described in my book, without ever taking DMT in a research or 'recreational' setting. And, the startling similarity between naturally occurring 'psychedelic states (such as mystical and near-death states, and the abduction phenomenon) suggests a method of reliability inducing what has previously been thought to be a series of purely serendipitous experiences.
TL: You recently held court with Whitley Streiber, author of 'Communion'. What do you make of the ‘alien abduction' phenomena and is there a connection to your DMT or pineal research?
RS: That was an extraordinarily enjoyable, and thought-provoking, interview. My book describes the finding that more than half of our 60 volunteers in the DMT research ‘made contact' with non-human 'life forms' that were intelligent, interactive, and sometimes intrusive upon the volunteers. Often times, 'they' were expecting the volunteers and were happy to see them; but other times the experiences were incredibly traumatic and bizarre. In nearly all cases, such experiences were completely unexpected, and totally out of the range of experience or imaginings of the research subjects. The similarity between our volunteers' descriptions, and those in the alien abduction literature was quite striking. I only have read John Mack's work - as a psychiatrist, I thought his perspective and interviewing style would mesh most closely with mine; and I know and respect John.
At a certain point in the research, I gave up derivative explanations, such as 'this is your brain on drugs,' or 'this is just an hallucination,' or this is some kind of Jungian archetype, because they felt like weak explanations, and the volunteers nearly unanimously and strongly rejected such and idea. I chose to react, and think, 'as if' they were real 'encounters.' I then learned about such strange areas of science as parallel universes and dark matter, and propose in the book that these beings may 'reside' therein.
Whitley countered by saying that the main differences between our volunteers' reports, and his knowledge of the phenomenon were first, the lack of physical evidence of abduction, and second the lack of a prominent role of the 'grays,' the little android type beings that many abductees meet with.
I suggested to him that there might be a spectrum of encounters, ranging from the very 'physically-based,' to the very 'consciousness-based,' and a range of beings in these manifold and varied planes. Perhaps spontaneous DMT release or high doses given 'from the outside' may mediate, to varying degrees, these types of contacts of a more 'consciousness-to-consciousness' nature.
The pineal gland may play a role here, because it's got the highest levels of precursors and enzymes necessary to make DMT on its own. In the book, I suggest that DMT is made in the pineal (although this hasn't been conclusively demonstrated yet), by various means. Some of these conditions may be met by one being biologically or genetically predisposed to making more DMT than others, and sometimes from outside influences, such as powerful electromagnetic fields, meditations, or stress.
TL: Have you taken DMT? Please describe a typical immersion.
RS: I've got 3 answers for that question: The first is 'I've given so much DMT it feels as if I've been there from the contact high.' The next is 'I couldn't take DMT in my studies because there is an unspoken rule in American research that principal investigators do not take their own drugs of abuse. This is because of the bad reputation that Leary and others gave the previously time-honored rule of self-experimentation in all fields of study.' My third answer is 'Stop asking me!'
TL: Does biology control or contribute to the spiritual urge?
RS: It certainly contributes. Change biology and you change subjective experience. I'm not sure biology 'controls' anything, other than biology. What did Descartes say about the pineal? 'It's where the cleaving of spirit and body occurs most tightly.' Cleaving is a good word. I think true spirituality is a matter of choice. Deciding what to do based upon your options.
TL: You once said that psychedelics weren't all that useful for psychotherapy. Do you still hold this opinion? Please explain.
RS: It all boils down to set and setting, and then some. I know, this gets a little repetitive. I think psychotherapy certainly occurs in an effective way, with no reliance upon psychedelics. And there are so many psychedelic experiences with so little 'therapeutic' outcome. What's the trick? Is there a substitute for hard work? Well, there's luck, when things come your way. But what do people do with luck? The often fritter that away too.
I had to choose between a good therapist with no psychedelics, and a bad therapist with psychedelics, well, I'd go with the former and avoid the latter. Does a good therapist with psychedelics do better work, or might someone get better faster or more deeply with psychedelics - I don't know! I just don't.
TL: In your book 'DMT: The Spirit Molecule' you mention that you originally wanted to research MDMA, and only later switched to DMT as funded research tool. Please trace the development of your ideas, and your two protocols, here. Are you still interested in doing MDMA research?
RS: I got swept up in the enthusiasm for MDMA as a psychotherapeutic adjunct in the mid-1980's. Many of my colleagues were attempting to get the DEA to reverse their decision to put MDMA into Schedule 1, the most highly restricted legal category of drugs. I took a different route, proposing to study the drug within the context of its restricted status. I designed a dose-response study of MDMA in normal volunteers, quite similar in scope to the DMT study, and submitted it in 1985.
Reports on the neurotoxicity of MDMA were coming to the fore at the time, prompting the DEA to emergency place it into Schedule 1. The FDA wanted to wait on my protocol, until it was clearer how the data would turn out regarding neurotoxic effects. As I mention in the book, I tried 'side-stepping' the neurotoxicity issue by suggesting I move directly to an MDMA psychotherapy protocol in the terminally ill. They were not keen on this idea, reminding me that the dying have rights, and neurotoxicity in the dying was not to be taken lightly. Also, they wondered about the accuracy of the terminal diagnosis. This made the issue of neurotoxicity more salient in case someone lived many years, possibly brain damaged from the drug.
About half-way through the DMT study, probably 1993 or so, the FDA wondered if I'd like to withdraw my MDMA protocol, as it had been languishing for so long 'on hold.' I agreed, as I was so involved in the DMT work. I'm not interested in doing an MDMA study. I don't find its effects as interesting as the tryptamines, and I think it has higher toxicity than the typical psychedelics. I'm also, in general, I'm not looking right now to resume research on giving people psychedelic drugs.
TL: You book says that several of your subjects exhibited intense REM-like eye rolling during their DMT sessions. Timothy Leary in his book 'High Priest' mentioned that chronic DMT users - and his prison DMT subjects - showed burst blood vessels around the whites of the eyes. Please comment.
RS: I don't think this is from rapid eye movement. People do however, break capillaries in their conjunctivae (the clear lining of the outside of their eyes) when their blood pressure rises; for example, when vomiting. So, my guess is that the finding Leary described is from the precipitous rise in blood pressure resulting from DMT. We never saw it in our study, even in the volunteer whose blood pressure really sky-rocketed.
TL: While developing your DMT grant proposals, you were asked about daily biological rhythms and DMT sensitivity. You said this would be investigated in your study. It's not mentioned again in your book. Please tell us, what did you find out?
RS: Actually, this was asked by the University's Research Center's Scientific Advisory panel. We never did compare DMT responses over the course of the 24 hour cycle; effects were quite sufficient giving it in the morning! However, this remains an interesting, perhaps not really that important, piece of information. Ayahuasca, as you know, is usually taken after dark. This may either be to enhance the visions, or because its effects are more profound a that time of day. It might be interesting to ask someone with a lot of Ayahuasca experience what they've found. Ayahuasca during the day certainly works, and if it's less effective, then it would be easy enough to raise the dose. However, if there were qualitative differences in the effects during the day, there might be more merit in studying this more carefully.
TL: During the DMT sessions, you incorporated Buddhist concepts like Abhidharma and Skandhaas orienting devices for your patients under-the-influence. Please explain these ideas and why they were useful.
RS: Abhidharma is one of the 3 branches of Buddhist texts: The other two are the Sutras, or alleged discourses by the Buddha, and the Vinaya, or rules of monastic conduct. The Abhidharma addresses the psychological principles and practices of Buddhist meditation. I first found out about his from some of Daniel Goleman's earliest drugs to 'save someone's health or sanity.' I'd really need to look at the case. I can't imagine a case like that, to be honest. However, everything has a risk to benefit ration. If you think breaking the law might result in a low likelihood of arrest or prosecution, and taking a psychedelic might help with whatever you want help with (illness, creative block, spiritual impasses, psychological problems), then it's up to you to calculate that ratio to yourself.
TL: Should psychedelics be legal or illegal?
RS: I think they need to remain tightly regulated, but not absolutely inaccessible. Having said that, who should have access to them? And in what context? 'Illicit' and 'recreational' use will continue forever. And religious use will continue in sanctioned and unsanctioned contexts. There's little I can say about that.
What I can contribute to in this discussion is a model for 'above-board' and legal use, in a medical setting. But, I would like to see that medical setting expand outside of what we commonly consider to be the strictures of that model, by thinking of them as enhancers of normal function, rather than as just relievers of symptoms or modifying illness courses.
TL: Dr. Daniel Freedman was one of your mentors and inspirations regarding your DMT research. Please tell us a bit about him.
RS: Danny Freedman was quite a guy. Tiny but rough. I think he couldn't have been over 5 feet tall. He did a lot of research with psychedelics in the 50's at NIH, but never really published his human work. Rather, he focused on animal models, and was instrumental in nailing down a role for serotonin in psychedelics' (especially LSD's ) function. He was at Yale for years, was Chairman of Psychiatry at the University of Chicago for many years, and then moved to UCLA where he was Vice-Chair of Psychiatry. He was editor of the most influential journal in academic psychiatry, The Archives of General Psychiatry, and wielded tremendous power, having been president of all major psychiatric societies and organizations at one time in his life. He needed no sleep, drank gallons of frightening coffee, chain-smoked and could reduce grown men to tears with his withering gaze. My first meeting with him, along with Dave Nichols, all day one Saturday at UCLA, left me wrung out and sick for days afterward. The coffee, cigarette smoke, his black sweatpants and sweatshirt, the office, his thought processes - all a little too much.
While Dr. Freedman didn't write about his human research (before his animal studies), everything he said or wrote was studied as an indicator of 'what psychiatry thought' about particular issues, sort of like the head of the Federal Reserve (Friedman, something?). He was involved with the Bobby Kennedy hearings on scheduling LSD and other psychedelics that resulted in the passage of the Controlled Substances Act. In any event, he wrote a very interesting article in his journal, called 'On the Use and abuse of LSD,' in which case he quite co-gently summarized the promises and pitfalls of psychedelic studies from a popular, and scientific point of view of psychedelic research. Skeptical inasmuch as the field required data, not theories. He was quite helpful in steering me towards the most likely-to-succeed approach to getting the DMT off the ground, and since he has former students everywhere, he called upon some to help me when things go seriously stymied while I was seeking approval.
TL: Dr. Freedman coined the term 'cultogen' to describe psychedelics, based in the evangelistic response they seem to sometimes set off in users. Comment?
RS: Dr. Freedman was great at making up words. This one is pretty self-explanatory. I think he meant it more as a 'pro-' cult, than an 'anti-' cult, in as much as (at least ostensibly) there were no anti-psychedelic cults, and quite a few psychedelic cults. Nevertheless, the unquestioning fervor which characterizes cults is seen in some psychedelics users, even now. Certainly marijuana has its staunch die-hard advocates (and enemies), but you never read about pro-crack cocaine newsletters. Why do psychedelics have that effect? Or better: why do people who take psychedelics have that tendency? Maybe it has something to do with the ecstasy and sense of novelty that psychedelics may elicit. Similar to a spiritual experience in some ways. It certainly is the case that those who have been 'saved or 'seen the light' certainly want to share this new-found clarity with others.
TL: In your book you mention the compounds Pindolol, Cyproheptadine and Naltrexone so far as attenuating the receptor sites favored by DMT. You mention Pindolol markedly enhancing the DMT experience. Please comment.
RS: As follow-up to our original 'dose-response' study of DMT, where we looked at effects of various doses of DMT in the same people, we then were required, by the model we were using (the biomedical, brain-science model) to figure out how DMT was working. Since DMT affects certain brain receptors, the typical way of teasing apart 'mechanisms of action' is to block those receptors, and compare responses of the blocked and unblocked condition. Pindolol blocks the serotonin 1 A site, Cyproheptadine the 2A and Naltrexone the opioid/endorphin sites. So, any changes in the DMT state resulting from pre-treating people with those drugs could logically be assumed to be mediated by those receptors the drugs affected.
Pindolol increased the blood pressure and psychological effects of DMT, something we didn't expect. It always seemed to us as if blood pressure and psychological responses to DMT went hand-in-hand, so this was consistent with that observation, but wasn't really anticipated in terms of the general finding (which was that 1A blockade increased those effects). We proposed that the 1A activation by DMT is a buffering, or inhibitory, effect, and that blocking those 1A site with Pindolol 'unleashed' or 'released' unopposed activation of the sites that, when stimulated, mediate DMT's effects. These are probably the 2A or 2C subtypes of the Serotonin receptor.
By the way, I don't recommend combining Pindolol with DMT. We almost induced a stroke in one fellow; his blood pressure went up so much, with only a moderate dose of DMT. We ended up using 0.1 mg/kg, a sub-psychedelic dose of DMT, in combination with Pindolol, because the effects were enhanced so much. The effects of DM were multiplied by a factor of 2-3 by Pindolol pre-treatment; that is, increasing the effects to the equivalent of a 0.2 or 0.3 mg/kg dose.
We then used Cyproheptadine, an antihistamine, with 2A and 2C blocking effects but this was se sedating, we couldn't really tell if what we were seeing was specific blockade, or just general sedation.
Naltrexone is an opiate blocker, and there are some data that opiates interact (either enhancing or reducing) the effects of psychedelics in animals. However, like Cyproheptadine, we also saw that the side effects of Naltrexone were so pronounced, it made determining any subtle effects on the DMT state too difficult for us t be able to say anything one way or the other.
TL: Your book mentions that DMT was the first endogenous psychedelic. It was discovered occurring naturally in human blood in 1965. Just how much endogenous DMT is actually produced and held in the body at any one time, as compared to a psycho-active dose?
RS: Much less. Maybe 1000 times less, maybe 10,000 times less. However, natural DMT levels were generally found to be higher in people with naturally occurring psychosis, such as manic psychosis, or schizophrenia. Also people with lever disease had higher levels, perhaps because the liver was less effective at breaking down DMT; however, these folks didn't have more psychedelic symptoms than normals. Other endogenous psychedelics exist, unrefutedly. 5-methoxy-DMT is well-established to exist. Bufotenine's been reported repeatedly, but then you need to wade into the 'is bufotenine psychedelic?' controversy. And certain beta-carbolines such as pinoline which if not primarily psychoactive themselves, may prolong and/or enhance the effects of the tryptamine endo-psychedelics.
TL: You also postulate 'anti-DMT' drugs, re: DMT and mental illness - research that was cut short because of drug hysteria. Are there drugs which will completely block the DMT trip, or abort it?
RS: Not that I know of. It's worth seeing if some of these new anti-psychotic drugs (with very few acute side effects) might work; for example, risperdal/risperidone, Seroquel/quetiapine, Zyprexa/olanzapine. These block 2A sites, and dopamine sites - there are increasing data that typical psychedelics affect dopamine sites, too.
TL: You published two papers on Ketamine, one pertaining to the Near Death Experience, the second Ketamine's psychedelic effects. You postulate endogenous 'Ketamine-like' compounds. Comment?
RS: I wrote a reply to Karl Jansen's paper in the 'Journal of Near-Death Studies' a few years back, in which he presented his current thinking on the relationship between Ketamine and the NDE. I argued that the case was much stronger for a DMT link.
The second paper you're referring to was in Anesthesiology, the flagship journal for the field, where I contributed my rating scale and comments to a study of the psychedelic effects of sub-anesthetic doses of Ketamine in a study occurring at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Ketamine clearly is psychedelic, and its effects demonstrate significant overlaps with those seen in naturally occurring NDE's. However, the data regarding the existence of endogenous Ketamine-like compounds is rather slim, and at my last reading, nearly non-existent, although it's been some years since I've looked into it. DMT is a much more likely candidate for an endogenous psychedelic mediating many of the spontaneous psychedelic states we humans are prone to.
Another reason why I'm a little leery of the Ketamine-NDE connection is the relatively greater addictive nature of Ketamine, compared to significantly rarer reports of addiction to DMT and/or the near-death experience.
TL: If you could have a chat with anyone regarding your DMT research, who might that be?
RS: I've given your question some thought, about whom I'd like to interview or spend some time with. I think it'd be George W. Bush. He seems like he wants to do well, and is in a powerful position to influence public policy. Of course, his advisors might have some problems with us hanging together.
TL: Any final comments or thoughts?
RS: Now that we've got an idea of what DMT can do I think it's absolutely crucial that we begin to ask ourselves, what does the presence of this extraordinary molecule in all of our bodies really mean?
My answer to this is that it gives us evidence for a basis for experiences that previously were felt to be random, or divinely delivered, or absolutely unreplicatible and beyond study. Our work with DMT effectively delivers into our hands a way of studying, eliciting, and beginning to understand the concrete, undeniable existence of the most fascinating and illuminating experiences possible.
TL: Thank you, Doctor.
RS: You're most welcome.