The effects of a powerful psychedelic drug used in South American ceremonies bear a “striking similarity” to near-death experiences, new research suggests.
There was an “intriguingly strong overlap” between the states of people who experienced the phenomenon as they thought they were about to die and those who had taken DMT, a study found.
The researchers, from Imperial College London, suggest the psychedelic drug may be able to alter brain activity in the same way as near-death experiences and could help improve understanding of the psychology of dying.
The study, published in journal Frontiers of Psychology, compared the experiences of 13 volunteers who were given DMT or a placebo and 67 people who had said they had a near-death experience.
DMT is the major psychoactive compound in ayahuasca, a drink made from vines and used in some tribal ceremonies in South and Central America.
Some users have reported having out-of-body experiences and feelings of inner peace after consuming it.
The researchers said near-death experiences – “complex subjective experiences” which occur close to actual or perceived impending death – have produced similar effects.
Chris Timmermann, a PhD candidate and lead author of the study, said: “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.”
Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, who leads the psychedelic research group at Imperial College London and oversaw the study, said: “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.
“DMT is a remarkable tool that can enable us to study and thus better understand the psychology and biology of dying.”
Improving understanding of the neurobiology of dying “may have implications for how we view this most inevitable and universal phenomenon, potentially promoting a greater familiarity with and healthy acceptance of it”, the authors said.
Mr Timmermann added: “We hope to conduct further studies to measure the changes in brain activity that occur when people have taken the compound.
“This, together with other work, will help us to explore not only the effects on the brain, but whether they might possibly be of medicinal benefit in future.”