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Could the “Spirit Molecule” DMT Assist in Stroke Recovery?

By Ruairi J Mackenzie

Published: Mar 23, 2021   
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N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) is a psychedelic compound under investigation for a range of therapeutic uses. In many psychedelic studies, psychiatric conditions are targeted by dosing participants with hallucinogenic levels of tested compounds. Now, new avenues using sub-hallucinogenic doses are being explored. One of these avenues of research is being pursued by Algernon Pharmaceuticals, who are investigating whether these tiny DMT doses could help to protect and repair the brain in the hours after a stroke.

Dr Rick Strassman, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, has recently joined the Algernon team. Strassman, who has studied DMT for decades, coined the term “the spirit molecule” to describe the compound, and his book of the same name was recently adapted into a Joe Rogan-featuring Netflix documentary. Technology Networks recently spoke to Strassman on the clinical potential of this drug.

Ruairi Mackenzie (RM): What properties make DMT worthy of the name, “the spirit molecule”?

Rick Strassman (RS): My interest in psychedelics began with an attempt to understand the biology of naturally occurring, highly altered states of consciousness; in particular, spiritual or religious experiences. I believed that since administering DMT, an endogenous psychedelic, replicated features of nondrug spiritual experience – meditation, near-death experiences, enlightenment, etc. -one could suggest that endogenous DMT plays a role in the nondrug state.

At high doses, DMT reliably induces an experience with several features related to spiritual experience: visions, voices, a seeming separation of consciousness from the body, extreme emotional states and contact with seemingly discarnate intelligences. This was the basis for my coining the term “spirit molecule” for DMT.

RM: Algernon’s clinical trial is investigating the potential of sub-hallucinogenic DMT doses to treat stroke. What are the proposed mechanisms of action for this effect?

RS: The proposed mechanisms for the beneficial effect of sub- psychedelic doses of DMT in stroke, according to the Nagy lab’s research, hinge on activation of the Sigma-1 receptor on neurons and microglial supportive cells. In addition, DMT reduces neurotoxic effects of low levels of oxygen in vitro, also via Sigma-1 mechanisms. There also may be a role for the serotonin 2-A receptor, where psychedelics are especially active; however, the Hungarian group did not look at this receptor specifically.

RM: What other indications do you think DMT, at hallucinogenic or sub-hallucinogenic doses, could be promising for?

RS: To the extent that DMT, a classical tryptamine psychedelic, exerts similar psychological and neurotrophic effects as other classical psychedelics – such as psilocybin and LSD – one would expect it to have the same range of therapeutic benefits. These could occur either psychologically at psychedelic doses, or via neurotrophic effects, which may occur at sub-psychedelic doses.

Dr Rick Strassman was speaking to Ruairi J Mackenzie, Senior Science Writer for Technology Networks

Ruairi J Mackenzie

Senior Science Writer

Ruairi started with Technology Networks in January 2018 after completing an undergraduate degree in Neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh and a Master’s in Clinical Neuroscience from the University of Cambridge. As a senior science writer, Ruairi covers a range of scientific news and articles, with a focus on the complexities and curiosities of the brain. Ruairi also looks after search engine optimization efforts on Technology Networks and created the site’s podcast, Opinionated Science, in 2020.


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