Q&A with DMT Research Expert Dr. Steven Barker

Dr. Steven Barker is the director of Louisiana State University’s Equine Medication Surveillance Lab in the School of Veterinary Medicine Building. A full professor since Comparative Biomedical Sciences since 1990, he held the Everett D. Besch Distinguished Professor award between 2000 and 2006. His undergraduate studies took place at the University of Alabama in Birmingham where he received his B.S., M.S., & Ph.D. in Chemistry/Neurochemistry. Dr. Barker’s research includes analytical toxicology, the Neurochemistry of hallucinogens, and has been extensively involved in studies involving the endogenously produced hormone dimethyltryptamine (DMT) since 1976.


Begin Interview

JC: In 2013, you published a paper in the journal, Biomedical Chromatography in which you found dimethyltryptamine (DMT), melatonin as well as precursors and metabolites in the pineal gland of rats. What was your initial reaction to these findings?

Dr. Barker: As of 2013, there had yet to be any examination of pineal glands or their perfusates from any animal species for the presence of DMT. Thus, Dr. Rick Strassman’s hypothesis that DMT was released from the pineal gland had yet to be subjected to true scientific inquiry. However, Rick was aware of the work of Dr. Jimo Borjigin (University of Michigan) who had developed a rat pineal gland perfusion or microdialysis method for examining the release of melatonin as well as other compounds from the pineal in free moving, living animals. Jimo agreed to collaborate on a project to examine these perfusates for DMT and provided me with samples. My laboratory applied the most stringent and sensitive analytical criteria to the analysis, using advanced mass spectrometric methodology, in an effort to determine whether DMT was present in the samples or not. From more than a dozen samples, we found five that, according to the criteria, matched all of the parameters to unequivocally identify DMT as being present in pineal gland perfusates from living rats. I have been doing DMT research since 1976 and, other than data from animals known to be administered DMT, this was my first time to see proof of endogenous DMT in such a biological sample. In fact, it was the first time anyone had seen DMT in such a sample. My reaction to our results? It changed me. The change that occurs in one’s psyche from scientific discovery, especially after a long search, or from proving a hypothesis, whether your own or, in this case, Dr. Strassman’s, is an indescribable and unique physical and emotional experience.

JC: Can you describe specifically how it changed your outlook both from a physical and emotional perspective?

Dr. Barker: Our hypotheses become our “beliefs” and we work to provide the necessary scientific evidence to prove or disprove them. Having the proof gives them life and allows us to proceed to the next question, the next proof. It’s like ascending a great mountain, reaching the top and taking in the never before seen view of both your past and your future. It’s a way of knowing that you are on the right path. Happiness, joy, yada yada.

JC: The awareness level of DMT as a “hallucinogen” has grown quite extensively since the documentary “DMT: The Spirit Molecule” was released and is available on Netflix as well as “bootleg” on YouTube. However, it doesn’t appear that people are aware that this molecule/hormone is and can be produced in the body naturally. In this video you state that it’s likely not a coincidence that all humans have an internal hallucinogen neuronal system. At its core, why do you believe our bodies have been designed as such?

Dr. Barker: Design is a loaded word with unscientific implications. Evolved may be more appropriate!

Probably since the first time our species attained consciousness and awareness we have wondered about the images in our heads, behind our eyes; dream states, reverie, creativity, imagination, the divergent and non-ordinary states of consciousness brought on by extremes of physiological stress and disease or by deep meditation or isolation, the extraordinary states of perception that have led to the mythologies of gods, other worlds and mysticism. We also discovered plant materials that would reliably transport the consumer to these wondrous places and we have since defined the individual compounds that gave these sacraments their power. We have mastered the fields of neurochemistry and neurophysiology to the point where we can create our own such molecules and understand, on a molecular level, how most of them do what they do. This is not the case, however, for the hallucinogens, such as DMT. While we know a number of the brain receptors to which they bind and act and their effect on other neurotransmitters involved, there remain compounds that do the same thing but are not hallucinogenic. Something in our knowledge of their mode of action is missing. There is something remaining to be discovered. In 1981 I hypothesized an endogenous hallucinogen neuronal system based on the presence of DMT in vivo and speculated that this is where and how hallucinogens act. My thinking on this has been refined over the intervening 34 years, but remains basically the same. There must be a compound, a neuronal system, that regulates levels of perception, allowing normal perception to occur and information to be properly processed, but subject to alteration such that extraordinary states of perception and consciousness could also arise. I believe that regulatory compound and system involves DMT. The revision in that thinking is that there must be other peptides, proteins, small molecules, that are also integral to regulating DMT itself. It is a more complex system than simply increasing or decreasing endogenous levels of DMT. What is currently being observed in neuroscience is brain activity/connectivity patterning that helps explain what people experience under the influence of hallucinogens. Thus, activation/deactivation of different brain areas and systems may explain our different subjective experiences, including the extraordinary states of consciousness. This may be DMT’s role. For example, recent data showed that psilocybin produces a brain activity pattern similar to that seen in REM sleep. Coincidence? Every new answer creates ten new questions.

JC: I read in one of your interviews you were quoted with, “If you’re going to ask questions, you might as well ask the big ones.” I liked that very much and feel very similarly. While I haven’t studied the field of epigenetics in-depth, the concept that our future is not completely defined by our genes and that we can manipulate gene expression through alterations in our external and internal environment seems rather dynamic. My question for you is that when studying DMT and it’s place in the body, have you come across any specific external/internal environment that correlates with increased DMT production and/or experiences?

Dr. Barker: Keep in mind that even epigenetics has a genetic component. Nonetheless, we now know that much of the brain remains “plastic” and neural connections/patterning can be altered by life events and exposures. Changes in neuro-connectivity have recently been demonstrated in ayahuasca users, for example. The research on what endogenous DMT does or what it regulates or is responsible for or responsive to is all very nascent. While hypotheses about its role in various states or involvement in various hallmarks of human life (birth, near-death, death, religious experience, etc.) all seem to make sense, we have yet to produce the necessary scientific data to support any of these ideas. I am hopeful that various government entities, in this and other nations, will begin to allow more research in these areas. I am of the opinion that it will reward us as a people to better understand what these compounds are trying to tell us about our own brains and that such research will give us valid alternative explanations to many outmoded and archaic ideas about ourselves and our universe.

JC: I watched an interview in which you address enzymes found in the lungs that can lead to the synthesis of DMT which could possibly correlate to symptoms associated with schizophrenia. You then presented the potentiality that schizophrenia within itself could be considered related to lung disease. Was there any specific region of the lung in which these enzymes were found or concentrated? Upper, middle, or lower portions?

Dr. Barker: The only studies conducted on lung tissue were not specific to lung anatomy. My comments were based on an assumption that, if DMT is primarily produced in the lung (where, at that time, the highest enzyme activity had been described) and DMT played any role in schizophrenia, it would, thus, be considered a lung disease. However, I think DMT may primarily be synthesized in the lung during specific physiological states; controlled breathing, such as occurs in many meditative practices, extreme physical exertion, hyperventilation, near-death changes in respiration rates, hypoxia, etc. DMT synthesized in the lung would go directly to the brain, by-passing the metabolic destruction that would occur from liver metabolism. There is some evidence that DMT is neuroprotective and may play a role in neuronal survival in extreme physiological states (either intentional of unintentional) that also alter lung function. Similarly, DMT can have a dissociative quality (OBE) that is also protective in extreme events (trauma, etc.). While DMT produced in the lung may have many other “normal” biochemical functions, it may be one of the hormones that responds to extreme stress (physical and mental) and the role of the lung in such events is well understood.

JC: You stated that DMT could have a dissociative quality (OBE or Out of Body Experience) that has protective qualities. When people report OBE’s either induced via specific techniques or via traumatic occurrences, do you believe that their “spirit” is actually viewing it’s environment from outside of the body?

Dr. Barker: No. OBEs are dissociative states that occur completely within the confines of ones own skull.

JC: Would this be a scenario of perception that could be proven or disproven in a scientific manner? For instance, if the person claiming the OBE experience in a non-traumatic setting is tested to be able to view specific, secured objects at a distance in a situation where they would be incapable of doing so when the body is physically located elsewhere in a secured environment/enclosure?

Dr. Barker: This has been done with surgical patients wherein they claimed at death or near-death to dissociate from the body and “float” above the surgical table, observing the events below. Some clever doctors or technicians placed a message that would be easy to see on the light fixtures above the tables, visible only if one were truly floating above. No patient who subsequently reported an OBE as described ever reported the presence of the message or its content. I’m sure there are others.

JC: In this video
you describe scenarios in which DMT could possibly be used to explain hallucinatory phenomena. These scenarios include starvation (fasting), isolation, dream states, creativity, & trauma. I believe that this does have correlation with the first Q4LT piece in which we outlined the fact that a combination of fasting, controlled hyperventilation via breathing exercises, slower brain wave states induced by one or a combination of meditation, hypnosis, isolation float tank, combined with stillness of the body have not only been associated with differing states of consciousness but also seem to directly suppress carbon dioxide levels in the blood. I guess I’m going back to the concept of epigenetics and how altering our internal environment can induce alterations in how our body operates on a systemic level. Have you seen any potential correlation for suppressed carbon dioxide levels and elevated/increased “mystical” states as it relates to endogenous DMT release/production?

Dr. Barker: Again, we have no data that correlates endogenous DMT with any physiologic state, normal or altered. My answers above are also responsive to this question. There are a number of “mystical states” that correlate with altering O2/CO2 ratios; the whirling dervishes, runner’s high, hyperventilation (Kundalini breath of fire), regulated meditative breathing, changes in breath patterns with sleep, relaxation, near-death and actual death, etc. The hallucinations that occur from use of isolation tanks or in actual isolation probably arise from a change in up regulation/down regulation of brain areas and their patterning involved in sensory data processing such that they start to create their own signals; this may be one of the things DMT is normally involved in, maintaining normal brain patterning.

JC: While melatonin production has been well documented to peak during our deepest sleep hours, there has yet to be any specific data that correlates endogenous DMT production with our dream states. Being a scientist you cannot definitely make a statement without the data to support it, however is it safe to say that our dream state comes about due to our own DMT production during deep sleep?

Dr. Barker: Future research should be able to provide a definitive answer in this regard. Since there are no reliable peripheral markers (blood, urine, saliva testing) for demonstrating DMT release by the pineal more research will have to be conducted on pineal perfusates or CSF to determine if DMT synthesis/release is circadian, ultradian or at all associated with sleep patterns. Our 2013 publication only collected pineal perfusates for 2 hours during a light cycle for the rats tested. Continuous perfusion samples over 24 hour time periods will need to be collected. It is not unreasonable to speculate or hypothesize, however, that DMT could be involved in the changes in brain patterning observed in different sleep states; some areas of the brain literally sleep while others are highly active.

JC: While most of the experiences associated with meditation and breathing practices have been largely internalized via “hallucinations” and/or “mystical feelings”, this paper published in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences in 2014 showcases voluntary influencing of both the sympathetic nervous system and immune system for the first time in a clinical setting. Based on what you have described in terms of DMT synthesis in the lung, do you believe that DMT could potentially play a role in the showcasing of this innate human ability?

Dr. Barker: I don’t think DMT would necessarily have a role in this. Yogis have for centuries demonstrated an ability to control physiological functions through control of innate pathways.

JC: I’m a bit lost right now. Earlier you stated the following… “I think DMT may primarily be synthesized in the lung during specific physiological states; controlled breathing, such as occurs in many meditative practices, extreme physical exertion, hyperventilation, near-death changes in respiration rates, hypoxia, etc. DMT synthesized in the lung would go directly to the brain, by-passing the metabolic destruction that would occur from liver metabolism.” Being that the PNAS study is largely predicated on the subjects exuding controlled breathing coupled with meditative practices (third eye meditation), it would appear that these subjects are actively participating in practices that would lead to DMT synthesis in the lung that would go directly to the brain. Even if Yogis have demonstrated the ability to control physiological functions for centuries, that doesn’t necessarily equate to DMT not being present in the equation does it?

Dr. Barker: DMT may well be in the equation. And it’s not that DMT is solely produced in the lung. The enzyme has been found in numerous tissues. My statement is about what may lead to lung synthesis not that that’s the only place its synthesized. There could also be release of DMT directly in the brain in response to cytokines released from the lung, other than DMT, in response to changes in respiration rate, O2/CO2 ratios, etc.

JC: While Pinoline is produced in the Pineal Gland from the metabolism of Melatonin, in an earlier exchange you stated the DMT is likely not produced from the metabolism of Melatonin. Based on experience and observation it just seems as though there is a definitive role that Melatonin production coupled with respiratory alkalosis plays in terms of inducing the “mystical experience”. I have a wild theory based on absolutely no proof whatsoever that when the conversion from Melatonin to Pinoline occurs, it allows for DMT to be produced rather simultaneously. Is there any specific relationship between Pinoline and DMT that could potentially provide the missing link on a chemical level?

Dr. Barker: I published a paper demonstrating the presence of 6-methoxy-tetrahydro-beta-carboline (6-MeO-THBC; called pinoline by Jace Callaway) in rat brain and adrenal gland in 1981 (Barker et al., Biochem. Pharmacol., 30, 9-17, 1981 . This compound has been shown to inhibit serotonin reuptake and is a reversible inhibitor of MAO. We have speculated for some time that the MAOI activity of this and related THBC compounds could serve to preserve DMT locally following its release in brain via their MAOI properties. However, there has yet to be any data showing co-release of these compounds from pineal. Nonetheless, in the pineal samples we analyzed with Borjigin in 2013 we did see melatonin and DMT at the same time but, although we looked, there was no evidence for the simultaneous presence of 6-MeO-THBC.

JC: Could it be that Pinoline acts like the catalyst to transition Melatonin to DMT? Something that looks like… Tryptophan to Serotonin to Melatonin to Pinoline to DMT?

Dr. Barker: Melatonin cannot be biochemically converted to DMT but melatonin could influence new DMT synthesis or stored DMT release. The effect would have to be through synergism.

JC: Changing topics for second… there has been much research in the field of “reincarnation” especially at the University of Virginia originating with Dr. Ian Stevenson and being perpetuated by Dr. Jim B. Tucker. Both men have meticulously presented data that leaves very little room for “logical” dismissal. There has also been much anecdotal reports from hypnotherapists and parapsychologist around the world reporting unexplainable “recollections” with patients under deep hypnosis, especially in somnambulistic patients. What are your thoughts on the concept of reincarnation as a whole?

Dr. Barker: There is no scientific data supporting the concept of reincarnation. The problem is that the question cannot be tested by the scientific method. While some individuals can give vivid recountings of events and cast them as past lives we have no way to actually prove them false or true. This leaves too much room for charlatanism. The idea of reincarnation seems to be borne more of hubris than fact, the idea that we are so very special we must never die or disappear. Given the evidence that our bodies return from whence they came (ashes to ashes) we have conceptualized the disembodied forces of souls and spirits. It has been my experience that for anything like consciousness to exist requires complexity and organization and that such a thing cannot exist disembodied, whether human, mouse, planarium, E. coli or supercomputer.
Reincarnation exists only in the sense that our bodies consist of recycled elements and the one known path that can partially reincarnate us; procreation.
It is possible that along with the blueprint to make something as complex as us and many of our other characteristics and instincts, DNA may contain/create memories from our ancestors. Since memories are distinct to certain brain areas and patterns of neuronal firing maybe memories are “inheritable”. Could this be what people are reporting as “previous-life” experiences?

JC: I asked Dr. Strassman this and I will ask you the same question. Edgar Cayce was a reported “seer” in the early 1900s that showcased an ability to put himself in trance and give unexplainable, yet uncannily accurate health diagnoses to those seeking his help. In a few of his documented readings he specifically cites the Leydig (or Lyden) Gland as a potential cause for schizophrenia. From what I have researched, modern science acknowledges the existence of Leydig cells but not so much the Leydig Gland which is apparently located on top of the gonads of both males and females. In all of your studies have you have across this gland? If so, what have been your findings?

Dr. Barker: I am familiar with Edgar Cayce and schizophrenia research. However, I have no knowledge concerning any data that support a role of Leydig cells in any disorder, much less syndromes such as schizophrenia.

JC: Are there any current studies taking place right now or in the future pipeline involving you or amongst colleagues that truly excites you as it pertains to DMT or anything else in particular?

Dr. Barker: We recently participated in a small study to determine if administration of an MAOI would make DMT and its metabolite DMT-N-oxide more readily detectable in urine or detectable in saliva. The results suggest that it does not. This provides further proof, I believe, that endogenous DMT levels are low and highly localized, released only under certain physiological conditions and that a good biomarker for its detection and study in the periphery is, at present, unattainable. This is good to know but further complicates the picture. I think future studies will have to focus on direct measurement, such as we conducted on pineal perfusates, and that those studies will offer the answers we need to what DMT does.

JC: The concept of “God” tends to make many scientists uncomfortable being that it appears as though it would be virtually impossible to prove “God’s” existence or non-existence. What are your thoughts and feelings on the concept of “God”?

Dr. Barker: The concept and practice of creating and then worshiping a god or gods is an antiquated human endeavor. Its foundations were built on an inability to explain our existence and that of the universe (once we came to realize there was one!). The world of the gods has grown ever smaller with the advance of the scientific method and discoveries regarding the function of the human brain. There never was a being, entity, force, etc., that we have defined as a god. There is the unexplained but we should not fall down in awe over the unknown. We have, from the beginning, misinterpreted our “visions” and emotions in this regard. It is past time for humankind to mature and put aside these fantasies and myths. The concept of god has given us religion which has failed to bring us what they all pretend to preach; peace, understanding, etc. It is not my place nor is it within my capacity to suggest an alternative but we cannot put on blinders when we begin to walk the path to discover its replacement.

End Interview

The rabbit hole runs deep as it pertains to the mystery that is dimethyltryptamine. Thanks to scientists such as Dr. Steven Barker we are inching closer to bringing our understanding of this internally produced hormone to the next level. The progression of our future comprehension has just as much to do with developing equipment and techniques that will allow us to accurately decipher miniscule particles of what we search for as it has to do with the ambition of the scientists that carry out these experiments. While perspectives of the “super natural” and “mystical” realms will vary based on education, background, and experiences… we do believe that it’s important to digest all information with an open mind and try to apply them to our own mental framework.

(A hard copy version of the articles on this site have been compiled in a book titled “Questions for the Lion Tamer”. It’s for sale on Amazon for $19.99)

For a more extensive look at the potential effects of DMT synthesis within the body and how they correlate with externalized and internalized experiences read “Measuring DMT Formation in Humans”, 6-part Series on DMT & Gamma Waves as well as the “Wild Theories” series.
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