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Project Update: Can The “Spirit Molecule” DMT Help Protect Brain Cells?

nick chapman/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

nick chapman/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

What do you associate with elves? Christmas? The Lord Of The Rings? DMT? For the vast majority of people, the latter is doubtful, and you’re probably left a little confused right now. But for those who have experienced the psychedelic effects of the hallucinogenic chemical DMT, the mention of elves may well have just flooded your mind with memories of that drug trip.

DMT, or N,N-Dimethyltryptamine, is a powerfully psychoactive compound that can induce profound experiences, such as the feeling of transcendence and intense visuals. These hallucinations commonly feature humanoid beings or entities sometimes described as elves.

But there’s much more to DMT than otherworldly creatures; some scientists believe it may have a place in modern medicine, and the brains behind a successful crowdfunding campaign launched on Walacea last year has made it his mission to explore this idea further. Six months on from the campaign’s closure, we caught up with this quirky scientist for an exciting update on how the project has progressed so far, and plans for the future.

Those who generously backed the project may be familiar with the science, but we’ll start off with a bit of background for those who aren’t. DMT is produced by many different plant species, some of which are used to make the hallucinogenic drink ayahuasca, used for centuries by Amazonian tribes in shamanic ceremonies. It’s also found naturally in very tiny amounts in humans, known as “endogenous DMT,” and fairly recently it was discovered that the human brain has multiple active transport mechanisms that allow it to cross our protective blood-brain barrier and cellular membranes. Together, these suggest that DMT likely has some role or purpose in the body, other than being a hallucinogen.


Interestingly, DMT also acts on a cell receptor called sigma-1 which studies have indicated has a protective and restorative function in neurodegenerative diseases and brain ischemia, or the restriction of blood flow to the brain, suggesting it could also play a role in stroke. This, combined with the fact that near-death experiences have been likened to DMT trips, forms the foundations of Dr Ede Frecska and colleague Attila Szabó’s research, who believes that DMT could help protect brain cells from damage caused by a lack of oxygen, or hypoxia, such as during a heart attack, coma, or clinical death.

After successfully smashing his crowdfunding goal of £2,000 last November, raising almost £3,600, Ede Frecska and Attila Szabó have now completed the first phase of their studies, and the results were very promising.

“The experiments went much better than expected,” said Frecska, Chairman of Psychiatry at the University of Debrecen in Hungary. “We’ve done the in vivo experiments, using brain cells in a Petri dish, which is the stage before animals. We stressed these cells with low oxygen concentrations, and found that more survived when exposed to DMT.”

More specifically, Frecska explained that his team exposed human stem cells that had been coaxed into becoming neurons to low levels of oxygen and added varying concentrations of DMT to different dishes. As expected, being starved of oxygen caused the cells to become stressed and die, and adding very low concentrations of DMT didn’t seem to mitigate this. However, higher concentrations of DMT caused three times as many neurons to survive. They also repeated this procedure with a different type of brain cell, called glia, and found similar results.

“The next step is to start using animals,” said Frecska, “so I wish to publish this second DMT paper soon. We have already published work showing that DMT has an anti-inflammatory effect.” That’s also a potentially important find, since chronic inflammation has been linked to a myriad of diseases of civilisation, from Alzheimer’s to heart disease.

If results in such animal models are similarly encouraging, indicating some neuroprotective role of DMT during hypoxia, then Frecska hopes to pursue human trials, possibly investigating its use in individuals whose brains have sustained injury or a lack of blood, and thus oxygen flow. But to progress his work, Frecska needs further funding, which is hard to come by for most scientists, let alone those working on Schedule 1 drugs like DMT.

“Psychedelics are stigmatised,” said Frecska. “You don’t have an endogenous opioid system just so you can have a nice time in an opium cave! And we don’t have endogenous hallucinogens just to make us go crazy.

“But the opioid system has been studied for decades [for its role in pain, stress and immune regulation, etc.]; this didn’t happen after endogenous hallucinogens were discovered. People assume they just have a psychedelic effect. I’m trying to show scientists that this is a new chapter of research, that endogenous hallucinogens have a physiological role in the body.”

Psychedelics are proving themselves not only as promising therapeutics, particularly with regards to mental health, but also as a potential window for investigating fascinating subjects like consciousness – check out the groundbreaking LSD research we also helped crowdfund. It’s time to end the stigma so that more studies like these can be conducted, and so research isn’t hindered by outdated ideas that are rooted in fear rather than science. Thank you for helping towards that goal, and for bringing this study to life!

Crowdfunding: Why Science Needs Public Support

Benn Berrigan/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Benn Berrigan/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

“If it was legitimate science, then it wouldn’t need to be crowdfunded.”

This is a response we have sometimes unfortunately received when seeking support for campaigns. Aside from being far from the truth, this highlights an apparent lack of understanding of some of the difficulties that scientists face while trying to secure funding for their scientific research. So, we thought we would use this as an excuse to delve into the subject and catch up with the scientists behind some projects which have crowdfunded through Walacea, to show you just how tough the world of research can be and hopefully lay these ill-informed ideas to rest.

The life of an academic is not as glamorous as many may believe. Much of a researcher’s time is consumed by the laborious process of writing grant applications, a thankless task for the majority due to the depressingly low success rates. Last year, for instance, the Medical Research Council, one of the five major science research councils in the UK, funded only 23% of the grant applications it received. The MRC funding panels give proposals a score of between 0-10 and state that while 6s or above are considered fundable, due to competition they are never able to fund 6s, and only rarely award 7s.

“Everyone has struggled. It’s a big issue, how to get funding for your research,” said the Karolinska Institute’s Dr Christoffer Rahm, lead researcher of a pioneering clinical trial seeking support through crowdfunding, which hopes to reduce the risk that people with paedophilic disorder will sexually abuse children. For Rahm, a major stumbling block in terms of funding has been a lack of big publications in prestigious journals.

“If you don’t have many high-impact articles on your CV, then most grant funding committees will decline your application. I’ve been a bit unlucky when it comes to publications; I don’t have any super-big articles so far,” Rahm added.

Image credit: materials-science-journals/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Image credit: materials-science-journals/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Early-career scientists transitioning from a position within a research group to becoming a group leader also face considerable difficulty in securing grants. This is a critical phase for researchers in regards to funding, said Rahm, but there aren’t many grants to apply for.

The issues surrounding funding don’t end there, either. There is actually an entire field of research for which funding is incredibly difficult to secure: psychedelics. Drugs like LSD and psilocybin (magic mushrooms) are grouped in the same category as heroin – Schedule 1 – meaning it’s not only almost impossible to gain approval for human studies into these substances, but funding bodies are extremely reluctant to award grants because of the perceived risks.

“Even though it’s legal to research these drugs, the associated political negativity deters funders,” said Professor David Nutt, former government advisor and professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London. “You can get lots of money to study drug addiction, like with heroin and alcohol, but research councils aren’t interested in recreational drugs like psychedelics.

“Studying the effects of drugs and how they alter consciousness, rather than addiction, is a lot harder.”

Image credit: new 1lluminati/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Image credit: new 1lluminati/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Last year, Walacea hosted a crowdfunding campaign for the world’s first imaging study of the brain on LSD, exploring its effects on consciousness. It was a huge success, more than doubling its funding goal of £25,000, and the groundbreaking results have appeared in two high-impact journals – PNAS and Current Biology.

“Funding bodies will often promote themselves as being visionary and willing to take a risk, but they didn’t with this work,” said Imperial College London’s Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, lead researcher of the LSD studies. “We were refused support, our research was rejected. Scientifically, I think they made a wrong decision. I think we’re proving that now with major publications in top journals. Top scientists have spoken, and the work was quality.

“I hope in the future that they’re more willing to help move this field forward, but people should be made aware of the research they’ve neglected.”

But this research is about more than playing I told you so. There is a considerable amount of evidence to suggest that certain psychedelics may have therapeutic benefits for numerous mental health conditions, such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Because of drug scheduling, though, clinical research into these substances has been hampered.

“We did the first human research on psilocybin in the UK for 50 years,” said Carhart-Harris. “The first fMRI work with psychedelics, the first proper MDMA study using fMRI… We were doing pioneering research with modest resources and consistently delivering. Now that we have a solid platform and it’s harder to refute what we’ve achieved, things should be easier in the future.”

Image credit: this shows the staggering difference in brain activity between those receiving a placebo (left) and LSD (right). PNAS/Carhart-Harris et al., 2016.

Alongside helping scientific projects secure the funding they need to come to life, crowdfunding brings people together who are passionate about a cause and establishes a community of people who together can make change happen when, individually, they wouldn’t have been able to. And apart from the obvious benefits to the scientists themselves, the media coverage that campaigns can pick up shows funding bodies that the projects are of public interest, and thus increases the chances that future grant applications will be successful. For clinical research, there is also the added bonus of keeping pharmaceutical companies out of the picture.

“The results are more reliable, I think, if you don’t have to collaborate with the pharmaceutical industry,” said Rahm. “Because the researcher is free to decide the project, choose the outcome measures they want to look at, and interpret the results without conflict of interest; and that’s very serious. Crowdfunding is one of the solutions to that problem.”

Of course, crowdfunding is not attempting to replace or compete with research councils; the grants these bodies give out each year could never be matched by this platform. But it’s clear there is a need for it, and the overwhelming success of some previous campaigns shows that there is indeed a public appetite, too. Crowdfunding science is still very much in its infancy, but the ingredients are there, and needless to say we’re looking forward to watching this exciting journey unfold.

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