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DMT and the Pineal:
Fact or Fiction?
by Jon Hanna
v1.2 - Dec 14, 2017
Citation:   Hanna J. "DMT and the Pineal: Fact or Fiction?" Jun 3 2010 (updated Dec 14 2017). Online edition:
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?

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?!'
There is no evidence to suggest that DMT can accumulate within the brain or within neurons at physiologically relevant concentrations..."
-- David Nichols, PhD (2017)
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...

Addendum by Rick Strassman
"I did my best in the DMT book to differentiate between what is known, and what I was conjecturing about (based upon what is known), regarding certain aspects of DMT dynamics. However, it's amazing how ineffective my efforts seem to have been. So many people write me, or write elsewhere, about DMT, and the pineal, assuming that the things I conjecture about are true. When I was writing the book, I thought I was clear enough, and repeating myself would have gotten tedious.

"We don't know whether DMT is made in the pineal. I muster a lot of circumstantial evidence supporting a reason to look long and hard at the pineal, but we do not yet know. There are data suggesting urinary DMT rises in psychotic patients when their psychosis is worse. However, we don't know whether DMT rises during dreams, meditation, near-death, death, birth or any other endogenous altered state. To the extent those states resemble those brought on by giving DMT, it certainly makes one wonder if endogenous DMT might be involved, and if it were, it would explain a lot. But we don't know yet. Even if the pineal weren't involved, that would have little overall effect on my theories regarding a role for DMT in endogenous altered states, because we do know that the gene involved in DMT synthesis is present in many organs, particularly lung. If the pineal made DMT, it would tie up a lot of loose ends regarding this enigmatic little organ. But people seem to live pretty normals lives without a pineal gland; for example, when it has had to be removed because of a tumor.

"In both these regards--the pineal-DMT connection, and endogenous DMT dynamics--we ought to know a lot more within the next several years due to the efforts of a research group being led by Steven Barker at Louisiana State University. He, with his grad student Ethan McIlhenny, are developing a new super-assay for DMT, 5-MeO-DMT, bufotenine, and metabolites. This assay will be capable of detecting those compounds much more sensitively than previous generations of assays. They're looking at endogenous levels in awake sober normals, to assess baseline values of these compounds. We should have some data from those samples within a year. They also will be looking at pineal tissue. Once we have some baseline data in normal humans in normal waking consciousness, comparisons can be made between those levels and levels in endogenous altered states, like dreams, near-death, and so on."

2017 Addendum
In 2017, the Journal of Psychopharmacology published a review article by David Nichols, PhD, "N,N-dimethyltryptamine and the pineal gland: Separating fact from myth", which includes in its conclusion:
"There is no evidence to suggest that DMT can accumulate within the brain or within neurons at physiologically relevant concentrations; such inferences are either not supported by direct experimental evidence or are based on flawed experiments."
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)

Revision History #
  • v1.0 - Jun 3, 2010 - Jon Hanna - Does the pineal gland really produce psychoactive tryptamines?
  • v1.1 - Jun 29, 2010 - Addendum by Rick Strassman.
  • v1.2 - Dec 14, 2017 - Addendum based on Nichols paper, addition of References section.