DMT and the Pineal: Fact or Fiction?

Altered States — POSTED BY David Luke on June 8, 2010 at 2:23 pm

A well-known factoid bandied about by psychedelic drug geeks is the idea that DMT, or some other psychoactive tryptamine, is produced by the pineal gland. When did this idea originate? And is it actually true?

By John Hanna for

During his talk “Psychoactive Drugs Throughout Human History” at a 1983 University of California at Santa Barbara conference, Andrew Weil mentioned in passing, “Dimethyltryptamine [...] is almost certainly made by the pineal gland in the brain.” Meanwhile, at U.C. San Diego, Rick Strassman had begun to wonder whether or not the pineal might produce psychedelic compounds. That same year, in his booklet Eros and the Pineal: The Layman’s Guide to Cerebral Solitaire, Albert Most claimed that: “A pair of naturally occurring pineal enzymes [...] is capable of converting serotonin into a number of potent hallucinogens.” Most stated that the pineal could transform serotonin into 5-methoxy-N-methyltryptamine, and then make that into 5-methyoxy-N,N-dimethyltrptamine. Alas, no references were provided to support Most’s description of pineal catabolism. Nevertheless, it seems likely that this general line of thinking–that some psychoactive tryptamine is created in the pineal–was birthed in the early 1980s.1

It took a couple of decades for the meme to spread into the wider drug-geek pop culture, more recently and rapidly due to the Internet, after the 2001 publication of Strassman’s popular book DMT: The Spirit Molecule. Consider the following transcription from a radio rant [audio file online here] given circa 2005/2006 by the actor-comedian Joe Rogan, host of the TV show Fear Factor:

It’s called dimethyltryptamine. It’s produced by your pineal gland. It’s actually a gland [...] that’s in the center of your brain. It’s the craziest drug ever. It’s the most potent psychedelic known to man. Literally. But the craziest thing [about it is that] it’s natural, and your brain produces it every night as you sleep. You know, when you sleep, during the time you’re in heavy R.E.M. sleep, and right before human death, your brain pumps out heavy doses of dimethyltryptamine. Nobody knows what sleep is all about. Nobody knows why dreaming is important. But dreaming is hugely important. If you don’t dream, you’ll go fucking crazy and you’ll die. While you’re dreaming, while you’re in heavy R.E.M. sleep, you are going through a psychedelic trip. And very few people know about this. But it’s been documented.

There’s a great book on it called DMT: The Spirit Molecule by a doctor named Dr. Rick Strassman. And he did all of these clinical studies at the University of New Mexico on it. And you take this shit, and literally you are transported into another fucking dimension. I don’t mean like, you feel like you’re in another dimension. I mean you’re in another dimension. [...] There’s fucking complex geometric patterns moving in synchronous order through the air all around you in three-dimensional space; and it’s like they’re arteries, except there’s not blood pumping through them, there’s fucking light–pulsating lights with no boundaries. And you couldn’t really understand it. And there’s an alien communicating with me. There’s a dude who looks like, like sorta like a Thai Buddha, except he’s made entirely of energy and there’s no, there’s no, like, outline to him–he’s just one thing. And he’s concentrating on me, and he’s trying to tell me not to give in to astonishment. Just relax, and try to experience this. And I’m like, ‘You gotta be fucking shittin’ me.’ And I’m a stand up comedian, you know. ‘Cos as a stand up comedian, we pride ourselves in being able to describe things. So I’m like, ‘How the FUCK am I gonna talk about this?!’

As of June 2010, there is currently no scientific evidence that the pineal gland produces DMT. Someday there may be evidence that DMT is produced in the pineal gland, but that day has not yet arrived.

Rogan does an excellent job of expressing a number of bullet points from Strassman’s book in a humorous manner. But the problem is that none of these points are known to be true. And although Strassman clearly states that his ideas about DMT and the pineal gland “are not proven”2, many people have accepted them as fact. As of June 2010, there is currently no scientific evidence that the pineal gland produces DMT, much less any evidence for the more far-out speculations that Strassman makes about DMT being a chemical modulator of the human soul. When Strassman examined the pineal glands from “about ten” human corpse brains, there was nary a trace of DMT to be found in them. This doesn’t invalidate his theory, since DMT is metabolized quickly, and none of the corpse brains were fresh-frozen. Further tests on fresh-frozen brains could be done. Someday there may be evidence that DMT is produced in the pineal gland, but that day has not yet arrived.

By the end of his book, Strassman proposes that DMT may provide access to parallel universes (and alien beings) via superconductive quantum computing of the human brain at room temperature, or via interactions with dark matter. Strassman states: “Because I know so little about theoretical physics, there are fewer constraints reining me in regarding such speculations.” And for those who know virtually nothing about any given topic, there appear to be no constraints on speculation. It is for exactly this reason that Strassman’s theories have both been accepted as fact by many people, and then expanded into creative new directions. A few offshoot theories include the idea that ancient prophets produced more DMT, that electro-magnetic fields increase DMT production, that spending a couple of weeks in total darkness increases DMT production, and that fluoridated water suppresses DMT production. An Internet search will turn up a bounty of wacky spin-offs, all of which cite Strassman’s speculations as the facts backing up their further claims.

Is DMT produced by the pineal gland? Maybe…

Notes #
  1. Albert Most is perhaps better-known for his 1984 booklet Bufo alvarius: The Psychedelic Toad of the Sonoran Desert, which explains how to collect and smoke the 5-MeO-DMT-containing secretions from this animal. Coincidentally, Most was one of the first two volunteers in Rick Strassman’s DMT studies, which started in 1990 and ended in 1995. And during the period when Strassman was researching DMT, Andrew Weil went on to co-author two journal articles with Wade Davis on the topic of B. alvarius’s psychoactive secretions.
  2. Strassman’s DMT: Spirit Molecule on DMT in the Pineal :

    These hypotheses are not proven, but they derive from scientifically valid data combined with spiritual and religious observations and teachings. [...]

    The most general hypothesis is that the pineal gland produces psychedelic amounts of DMT at extraordinary times in our lives. Pineal DMT production is the physical representation of non-material, or energetic, processes. It provides us with the vehicle to consciously experience the movement of our life-force in its most extreme manifestations. Specific examples of this phenomenon are the following:

    When our individual life force enters our fetal body, the moment in which we become truly human, it passes through the pineal and triggers the first primordial flood of DMT.

    Later, at birth, the pineal releases more DMT.

    In some of us, pineal DMT mediates the pivotal experiences of deep meditation, psychosis, and near-death experiences.

    As we die, the life-force leaves the body through the pineal gland, releasing another flood of this psychedelic spirit molecule. (pages 68-69, DMT: The Spirit Molecule, 2001)

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  • Randy says:

    NEW: DMT Found in the Pineal Gland of Live Rats
    Post on 05/23/2013 by CRF

    We’re excited to announce the acceptance for publication of a paper documenting the presence of DMT in the pineal glands of live rodents. The paper will appear in the journal Biomedical Chromatography and describes experiments that took place in Dr. Jimo Borjigin’s laboratory at the University of Michigan, where samples were collected. These samples were analyzed in Dr. Steven Barker’s laboratory at Louisiana State University, using methods that funding from the Cottonwood Research Foundation helped develop.

    The pineal gland has been an object of great interest regarding consciousness for thousands of years, and a pineal source of DMT would help support a role for this enigmatic gland in unusual states of consciousness. Research at the University of Wisconsin has recently demonstrated the presence of the DMT-synthesizing enzyme as well as activity of the gene responsible for the enzyme in pineal (and retina). Our new data now establish that the enzyme actively produces DMT in the pineal.

    The next step is to determine the presence of DMT in cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), the fluid that bathes the brain and pineal. CSF is a possible route for pineal-synthesized DMT to effect changes in brain function. Successfully establishing DMT’s presence in this gland adds another link in the chain between the pineal and consciousness and opens new avenues for research.

    We thank those who have already donated to our advancement of the research in this field. We hope the recent developments will encourage you to donate to Cottonwood again, or for the first time, in order to continue this fascinating and intriguing line of research. When donating, please make sure you select “Pineal Project” as the

  • alchemistoxford says:

    Thanks for this fascinating account of the debate concerning the pineal gland. Descartes was the philosopher whose writings on the pineal exalted its status to that of a governor of the brain, mind, body and soul. Strassman’s speculations on the pineal and DMT are no less extravagant and are fundamentally Cartesian. Even Blavatsky conceived of the pineal as the seat of the third eye. All of this is theoretically intoxicating, and it is good to have a sober report to focus and concentrate the mystique.

  • David Luke says:

    Hanna is right to dispel the widespread acceptance of hypothesis and speculation as fact… the DMT-pineal hypothesis is just that, and with the current drug climate getting at the truth is likely to take along time. However, I would like to point out that DMT is most likely made in the body somewhere, because it and it’s metabolites can be detected in bodily fluids. Furthermore, the pineal gland has all the appropriate building blocks necessary more making DMT so the hypothesis is not entirely wild, just not ‘proven’.

    For an accessible review of what is known about the neuropharmacy of DMT and ayahuasca see:

    Callaway, J. C. (2006). Phytochemistry and neuropharmacology of ayahuasca. In R. Metzner (Eds.), Sacred vine of the spirits: Ayahuasca (Pp. 94-116). Rochester, VT: Park Street

    The whole book is worth reading anyway.

    - David

  • Bob says:

    I also thought that the pineal gland secreted dmt based on what I heard from “authorities” on the subject. Thanks for pointing out that there is not credible science which has demonstrated this. In any event no one can deny that Entheogens are life changing and in many cases have helped people understand themselves better.

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