Pharmadrug, a medical cannabis distributor and pharmaceutical company, announced March 16 it would be collaborating with University of Michigan Medical School professor Dr. Jimo Borjigin to research DMT, a powerful psychedelic drug.
Scientifically known as N,N-Dimethyltryptamine, DMT is also called “the spirit molecule.” It has been used by indigenous people in South America for centuries and is known for inducing life-changing, spiritual experiences in users.
DMT differs from other psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin (magic mushrooms) in that it is naturally found in both plants and animals, while LSD and psilocybin are only found in plants and various fungi.
Borjigin has been studying DMT since 2012, and she said she became interested in DMT after contacting DMT researcher Rick Strassman of the University of New Mexico School of Medicine. Strassman wrote a book and produced a documentary about his research on DMT, specifically a clinical trial he ran with human volunteers in the early 1990s.
“As a neuroscientist, I wondered what DMT did in human brains,” Borjigin said.
In 2013, Borjigin and other researchers found DMT in the pineal gland of rats. The pineal gland is a small gland in the brain that produces melatonin, a hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycle. Through other studies, DMT has also been found in humans, but scientists still do not know how much DMT there is in our bodies or why it is there.
More recently, Borjigin and her lab found DMT in the rat brain in 2019. The amount of DMT found in the rat brains is roughly equivalent to the amount of serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine — neurotransmitters that affect mood and regulate a variety of functions in human bodies. The level of DMT in the rat brains indicated that the drug might be able to have a much larger role in human functioning than previously thought.
“I think our findings contradicts other people’s criticism that DMT is just a minor presence, or a metabolic waste product, and doesn’t have any physiological function,” Borjigin said.
This critique has been one of many obstacles standing in the way of research on the role of naturally occuring DMT in the body. The perceptions around studying psychedelics tend to misunderstand or dismiss their importance, Borjigin said. She highlighted how difficult it was to obtain funding for her research.
“We actually tried very hard to get funding from the National Institutes of Health,” Borjigin said. “Many people seem to be confused about our drive to study DMT. They will try to send our proposals to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which is the wrong type of research. We’re interested in endogenous DMT.”
Research on endogenous DMT, or DMT that is made naturally in our brains, stood out to Pharmadrug CEO Daniel Cohen.
“We were really interested in the fact that DMT is so prevalent in nature,” Cohen said.
Pharmadrug currently distributes medical cannabis in Europe and psychedelic mushrooms in the Netherlands, where it is legal to buy and sell them.
“We realized there was a lot of work already being done with psilocybin, LSD and ketamine,” Cohen said. “We also did some research and realized that DMT hadn’t really been addressed yet in the biotech sector.”
Pharmadrug got in touch with Borjigin through a connection with another psychedelic researcher.
“Speaking with (Borjigin), it became apparent that she’s one of the leaders in academia when it comes to DMT research,” Cohen said.
Cohen said he believes there hasn’t been enough research on DMT.
“We want to use (Borjigin’s) research with future clinical studies to develop a potential commercial path for DMT,” Cohen said.
Borjigin said she will continue to study DMT in rat brains and not in those of humans due to the invasiveness of the necessary procedures. Any clinical studies in humans would observe the behavioral impacts and effects of DMT and not require surgical procedures, Borjigin explained..
Doctoral candidate Nicolas Glynos has been working with Borjigin for the past two years and cites DMT research as one of the main reasons he decided to study at the University of Michigan.
“I’ve spent the majority of the past two years studying, thinking about and working on DMT,” Glynos said.
Glynos is an active member of the Student Association for Psychedelic Studies, co-founder of the Rackham Interdisciplinary Workshop Psychedelic Neuroscience and Therapy and was a featured speaker at the TedxUofM event.
With these student organizations, Glynos said his goal is to make psychedelic studies more mainstream.
“We want to provide opportunities for students, faculty, staff and members of the Michigan community to engage in research surrounding psychedelic science and therapy,” Glynos said. “We want to bring psychedelics into the curriculum of Michigan academia.”
Glynos said he sees psychedelics as having the potential to radically shift how mental health is treated.
“We’ve learned that SSRIs and other pharmaceutical drugs are really ineffective at treating mental illnesses like major depressive disorder, substance abuse and anxiety conditions,” Glynos said. “Because DMT occurs endogenously in humans, there’s a lot of potential to understand mental health disorders and psychiatric disorders.”
Borjigin emphasized that DMT research is still important even if the therapeutic potential is unclear.
“This could rewrite how psychiatry sees the fundamental aspects of mental function,” Borjigin said. “This could open up a whole new field of research and open up our eyes to entire new aspects of how our brain functions.”Daily Staff Reporter Teagan Stebbins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.