With first human study, Scientists believe a drug found in Amazonian plants could help the UK’s stroke victims — and the 1.81 million of us who live with depression
For centuries, certain plants in the Amazon basin (such as Mimosa tenuiflora and Diplopterys cabrerana) have been used in traditional medicine and ritual. This is due to their natural synthesis of a psychoactive substance called N,N Dimethyltryptamine, or DMT for short.
And DMT could do far more than trigger psychedelic experiences. UK scientists also believe it could prove transformative in the treatment of stroke victims, those with brain injuries and the 1.81 million Brits who have sought support for depression and other mental illnesses .
The reason is DMT’s apparent ability to positively influence ‘neuroplasticity’ , a collective term for the brain’s ability to reshape and make new connections, a natural process which happens regularly throughout our lives. Indeed, international research has already shown DMT to have a positive, galvanising effect on this ‘rebuilding and repairing’ in the brains of mice, showing that the drug significantly increases the brain’s ability to form neural connections [3, 4] and promotes the expression of genes which relate to synaptic plasticity .
“That’s why we want to study its effect on the human brain,” says Professor David Nutt, chair and founder of Drug Science and one of the world’s leading neuropsychopharmacologists.
With an imaging team at Imperial College London, led by Dr David Erritzoe, Drug Science plans to test DMT’s effects on human neuroplasticity using a newly developed brain imaging marker called [11C] UCB-J. This biochemical binds exclusively to the connections being formed between cells and can be accurately mapped through advances in modern Positron Emission Tomography (or PET) scanning, which the team will use in conjunction with magnetic resonance imaging (or MRI).
“By studying DMT’s effects with these precise methods, we hope to establish whether the drug really does help the brain to repair itself”, says Nutt. “That could be by fixing damage after a stroke. Or by improving the weakened neural connections observed in disorders like depression . It’s a very, very exciting prospect.”
Drug Science’s groundbreaking study will take place at Invicro, an imaging facility based on the campus of Imperial College London . It has been funded exclusively by Peter Rands, founder and former Chief Executive Officer at Small Pharma Inc. As per Drug Science’s principles — the charity works without political or commercial influence — Mr. Rands seeks no influence on the research’s outcomes.
Mr. Rands comments: “Dr. Erritzoe’s study will be a major milestone in Drug Science’s mission, to really investigate and understand the neural mechanisms governing the therapeutic effects of psychedelics, such as DMT. Drug Science are pioneers in psychedelic research and I’m delighted to be able to provide financial support for the sponsorship of this project.”
Notes to editors
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N,N Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) is a naturally-occurring, fast-acting psychoactive molecule that is present in a wide variety of plants and animals (including humans). It can also be synthesised in a lab.
Chemically speaking, DMT is part of the tryptamine family of indole alkaloids and is similar in chemical structure to serotonin – the neurotransmitter most closely associated with happiness and wellbeing, as well as sleep.
DMT also resembles “classic” psychedelic drugs, such as psilocybin and LSD.
And similar to these “classic” psychedelics, DMT works by binding itself to a range of receptors in the brain, notably the 5-HT2A serotonin receptor. This can have the effect of altering visual perception, interoception (the way the mind processes what is happening in the body) and the way a person experiences reality for the duration of the drug’s effect (which typically lasts 20-30 minutes). This is significantly shorter than the psychedelic experiences induced by LSD or psilocybin.
In common with other psychedelic treatments such as psilocybin and MDMA, DMT is now attracting serious scientific interest as a treatment for depression – which the World Health Organisation now recognises as the leading cause of disability worldwide (WHO Factsheet, Depression (March 2023).
The past two decades have witnessed the re-emergence of serotonergic psychedelic molecules, such as N,N-dimethyltryptamine, as safe and effective pharmacological candidates to treat a range of psychiatric conditions. Growing evidence is emerging on the role of classic serotonergic psychedelics as modulating markers of synaptic plasticity. This property of classic psychedelics might underline the beneficial effects observed in clinical settings. However, most research to date on the effects of such compounds on brain plasticity markers have been conducted in pre-clinical ex-vivo or animal studies and still remains to be determined in humans.
The study now has all ethical approvals and is awaiting contractual arrangements with Drug Science’s scanning collaborators. ‘Dry runs’ are planned in the coming weeks and the study is projected to begin in mid September 2023 (with the understanding that many clinical studies can be delayed due to unforeseen circumstances).
About Drug Science
Founded in 2010, Drug Science is the leading independent scientific body on drugs in the UK. We work to provide clear, evidence-based information without political or commercial interference.
About Peter Rands
Mr. Rands is the founder of Small Pharma Inc (SPI), a publicly listed biotech focused on development of medicinal treatments for mental health disorders. During his tenure as Chief Executive Officer of SPI, Mr. Rands led the company in conducting the first placebo-controlled proof-of-concept clinical trial for N,N Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) in patients with Major Depressive Disorder. The results of this study were published in January 2023.