Researchers Conflicted on South American Tea’s Ability to Offer NDE

A paper published Aug. 15 in the journal Frontiers in Psychology focused on ayahuasca — a tea from South America with intense, short-lived hallucinogenic effects. In the study, 13 healthy volunteers were intravenously given N, N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), and the most potent active ingredient in the brew. Then, while still on the drug, the volunteers answered a questionnaire, designed in the early 1980s, that aims to determine whether someone has gone through a "near-death experience," an intense psychological state believed to occur very close to death.

The researchers compared the volunteers' answers with the answers they had given earlier, after taking a placebo. The researchers also compared the questionnaire answers to responses from 13 separate volunteers who had reported a near-death experience, or NDE. "All 13 participants [who took DMT] scored above the standard threshold for an NDE," the authors wrote. In other words, it appears that DMT induced something similar to an NDE.

The researchers hope that the study helps shed light on what's going on in the brain during an NDE. "These findings are important, as they remind us that NDE[s] occur because of significant changes in the way the brain is working, not because of something beyond the brain," lead study author Robin Carhart-Harris, head of the Psychedelic Research Group at Imperial College London, said in a statement. "DMT is a remarkable tool that can enable us to study, and thus better understand, the psychology and biology of dying."

"These data suggest that the well-recognized life-changing effects of both DMT and NDE might have the same neuroscientific basis," study co-author David Nutt, a neuropsychopharmacologist at the same institution who also worked on the paper, said in the statement. Still, in the paper, the researchers acknowledged that this result is far from definitive, instead presenting it as a fascinating phenomenon requiring further study. Indeed, not much is really known about the exact nature of NDEs, and while DMT users often claim that using the drug is like dying, there's no direct chemical evidence for a link.

Manoj Doss, a cognitive neuropsychopharmacologist and drug expert at Johns Hopkins University, said he wasn't convinced by the paper's claims. "If there's one thing that we know, it's that people aren't very good at metacognizing [thinking about what's going on inside their own heads], especially when they're on drugs," Doss said. The questionnaire itself was designed in 1983 based on what Doss said was a problematic method of having people describe their own thoughts, based on interviews with 67 people who had reported NDEs.

"This whole thing is kind of like when people try to tell you about their dreams, and they have all these distortions that they put together," Doss added. The bigger reason not to read too much into this study, though, is that there's no evidence that DMT is really special, Doss said. While some people have suggested that human brains might produce large amounts of DMT right before death, he said, there's little evidence that this could actually happen. And there's no reason to suspect that the NDE effect is really unique to DMT.

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