A new study, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, suggests that a psychedelic compound found in ayahuasca replicates near-death experiences in the brain.

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The plant-based ayahuasca brew (shown here) may mimic the effects of a near-death experience.

Ayahuasca is a psychoactive brew made from different plants.

A main ingredient is dimethyltryptamine (DMT), which is a “non-selective serotonin receptor agonist” — that is, a compound that boosts serotonin, or the “happiness hormone.”

DMT has to be taken with other complementary substances for its psychoactive properties to become active.

Once DMT has been absorbed, it activates the same receptors as lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and “magic mushrooms.”

The experiences, visions, and feelings triggered by ayahuasca and DMT have been described as “mystical” and “healing.” Recent research suggests that ayahuasca may even cure severe depression.

New research now suggests that DMT has another “hidden power.” It can “recreate” near-death experiences in the brain.

The new study that proposes this was carried out by scientists at Imperial College London (ICL) in the United Kingdom. They were supervised by Robin Carhart-Harris, the head of psychedelic research at ICL’s Division of Brain Sciences, Faculty of Medicine.

Carhart-Harris and his colleagues gave DMT or a placebo to 13 healthy study participants, aged 34, on average. The participants had volunteered, and they were medically supervised throughout the process. The volunteers took part in two sessions and received a total of four doses of DMT.

The researchers also asked the volunteers to answer a standard questionnaire that had been filled by people who reported near-death experiences in the past.

The questionnaire had 16 items and included questions such as, “Did scenes from your past come back to you?” and, “Did you see, or feel surrounded by, a brilliant light?” The participants filled in the questionnaire after each session.

As the researchers explain in their study, there is no universal definition of near-death experiences, but people who say that they have had such an experience report visions of a bright light, feelings of “another realm,” or traveling through a “void” that most people perceive as a tunnel.

The questionnaire included a score for each question across four parameters: cognitive, affective, transcendental, and paranormal. An overall score of 7 or higher was considered to indicate a near-death experience.

Carhart-Harris and colleagues compared the participants’ replies with those of 67 people who said that they had had near-death experiences in the past.

The study revealed that all participants scored 7 or above, indicating that DMT had induced a near-death-like experience.

First study author Chris Timmermann says, “Our findings show a striking similarity between the types of experiences people are having when they take DMT and people who have reported a near-death experience.”

Study co-author David Nutt, who is a professor of neuropsychopharmacology at ICL, also weighs in, saying, “These data suggest that the well-recognized life-changing effects of both DMT and [near-death experiences] might have the same neuroscientific basis.”

Carhart-Harris suggests that the results reinforce the idea that near-death experiences have more to do with what goes on in our brains rather than another world or “divine” realm.

These findings are important as they remind us that [near-death experiences] occur because of significant changes in the way the brain is working, not because of something beyond the brain.”

Robin Carhart-Harris

“DMT is a remarkable tool that can enable us to study and thus better understand the psychology and biology of dying,” he adds.

Timmermann highlights the importance of further research. “We hope to conduct further studies to measure the changes in brain activity that occur when people have taken the compound,” he says.

“This, together with other work,” concludes Timmermann, “will help us to explore not only the effects on the brain, but whether they might possibly be of medicinal benefit in future.”