DMT is produced in many species of plants often in conjunction with its close chemical relatives 5-methoxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine (5-MeO-DMT) and bufotenin (5-OH-DMT). DMT-containing plants are commonly used in indigenous Amazonian shamanic practices. It is usually one of the main active constituents of the drink ayahuasca; however, ayahuasca is sometimes brewed with plants that do not produce DMT. It occurs as the primary psychoactive alkaloid in several plants including Mimosa tenuiflora, Diplopterys cabrerana, and Psychotria viridis. DMT is found as a minor alkaloid in snuff made from Virola bark resin in which 5-MeO-DMT is the main active alkaloid. DMT is also found as a minor alkaloid in bark, pods, and beans of Anadenanthera peregrina and Anadenanthera colubrina used to make Yopo and Vilca snuff, in which bufotenin is the main active alkaloid. Psilocin and its precursor psilocybin, an active chemical in many psilocybin mushrooms, are structurally similar to DMT.
The psychotropic effects of DMT were first studied scientifically by the Hungarian chemist and psychologist Stephen Szára, who performed research with volunteers in the mid-1950s. Szára, who later worked for the US National Institutes of Health, had turned his attention to DMT after his order for LSD from the Swiss company Sandoz Laboratories was rejected on the grounds that the powerful psychotropic could be dangerous in the hands of a communist country.
DMT is generally not active orally unless it is combined with a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) such as a reversible inhibitor of monoamine oxidase A (RIMA), for example, harmaline. Without an MAOI, the body quickly metabolizes orally administered DMT, and it therefore has no hallucinogenic effect unless the dose exceeds monoamine oxidase’s metabolic capacity. Other means of ingestion such as vaporizing, injecting, or insufflating the drug can produce powerful hallucinations for a short time (usually less than half an hour), as the DMT reaches the brain before it can be metabolized by the body’s natural monoamine oxidase. Taking a MAOI prior to vaporizing or injecting DMT prolongs and potentiates the effects.