WARNING! Sorry for audio background noise. Waiter rudely began moving furniture. Transcript is below.
Neuropharmacologist Jackcharles Allocca discusses Datura, Toad Venom, Salvia, consciousness and terminal lucidity.
Joshua Bloom:- So I am here in Prague with my good friend Jack Charles who is a neuropharmacologist researcher at Melbourne University. You are currently creating a technology that harnesses the dream state, could you elaborate on that?
Jackcharles Allocca:- It doesn’t necessarily harness the dream state. It’s an analytical tool that reads brain activity to deploy artificial intelligence, machine learning, to categorize different states of consciousness. Basically an algorithm that can work out at any given time, subject or an animal that is awake, what type of awake, if he is asleep, what stage of sleep, if it is in REM sleep or not, all automatically. Instead of going through a pretty outdated procedure that has nonetheless remained resilient for decades which is that of manual scoring, meaning the scientists today, needed otherwise to survey visually brain activity on screens, literally lines going up and down, and then with their knowledge classify and label chunks of data, usually in the third or four seconds length, for different states. Awake, sleep, or different sleep.
JB: So you are pretty much automating what has currently been intensive manual process?
JA: Laborious, stressful, boring, procedure. And inaccurate, the people get tired and don’t want to it, and there is personal bias of course.
JB:Okay so what other benefits do you think could build on your technology?
JA: Well considering that this widens a major bottleneck in data analysis, which takes a lot of time, a lot of Human Resources, this opens up all the possibilities that come after this step. So you can data mine the output, you can find out things that would otherwise would be very hard to access, because the analytic process takes so long, and people eventually move on, run out of resources, or don’t have enough stuff to do this. So you can work out insights, about different states of consciousness, different states of health – mental health or physical health, and also survey altered states, so that it will be possible to categorize in the same way that we differentiate vigilant states – wake and sleep, we can now categorize different states of wake, the normal status quo of consciousness that, or that which we could achieve through breath work, or through the use of different psychedelic substances, or meditation practice.
JB: Now you’re quite an experienced practitioner of going into realms of altered states. You recently went to Mexico and sampled venom from the bulfas alvarus toad that produces a complex venom that contains the most potent ingredient that perhaps is 5-meo DMT, that contains 19 or other psychoactive alkaloids. Can you comment on the experience?
JA: Well the experience is one of the most intense that can be achieved with psychedelic substances. It is very sudden, because the venom has to be smoked, has to be vaporized. So this is basically a very sudden onset, it basically brings the subject, it brought me to an altered state very quickly, and it disintegrates your cognitive landscape in a way that I would describe as a very powerful vacuum that just sucks out all your sensations, all your ideas, and all you are left with is what basically has been described as like a big white, like you…all the colors disappear as well and you are just left with this white pure noise, which is the noise of your internal neural substrate, and this almost impossible to achieve naturally, because you are bombarded with information all the time, and not just the outside but also the inside, so even procedures such as sensory deprivation tanks, all of that, will be quite effective at removing the external information, but it is still quite ineffective at removing the internal imagery, while bulfas alvarus goes past that, and basically empties the external and the internal world, so that then you are only left with the sheer architecture of your mind.
JB: Now a lot of people say that the 5-meo experience is the most powerful entheogenic experience. You claim that the dream state is the most powerful psychedelic experience.
JA: Well the most powerful natural indogenous state. In fact I think that a lot of the machinery we are equipped with in our day-to-day life is designed for lack of a better word, to be manipulated in the sleep state. And the drugs kind of tap into this system, and alter some of the mechanics within it, but during the dream state this is something that is sustainable, healthy, and fully integrated with the mechanics of maintenance and self-restructuring and repair. The dream state is very important. This is why psychedelics are important because they are very quick, and they are very precise in what they do, although they are not particularly organic, they are not necessarily natural.
We would have to discuss on the actual nature of natural, but if one is to really master a very sustainable and integrated way to work on his neuronal, mental and psychological substrate. The dream state is one that is very powerful and very useful. And one that runs in the background without us knowing, every night.
JB: Now after the publication of Rick Strassman’s book ‘DMT: The Spirit Molecule, a lot of people jumped on the bandwagon. This is it. The pineal gland is the seat of consciousness, and DMT is the spirit molecule, that opens up the interface between the physical and the transcendental or the spiritual, whatever you want to call it. Now there was debate at Breaking Convention recently with Dennis McKenna, David Nichols, and Jimo Borjigin, and anthropologist Graham St John, who wrote several books on DMT. Basically David Nichols was saying that DMT is released in far too low concentrations in the plasma that it could never possibly have a psychoactive effect. Therefore the theory that Rick Strassman proposed of being responsible for all these mystical experiences in countless Holy Scriptures is null and void. Can you provide a comment on that?
JA: DMT is produced in the brain; it is effective in several species, and indirect ways in humans as well. But then the validity of these secretions is what is very much debatable. DMT follows specific metabolic pathways in the brain. And it can be synthesized from specific cascades which revolve around melatonin metabolism. Melatonin is widely recognized to be produced in the pineal gland, so of course it is tempting, very seductive, to think that all this machinery will be there also to lead the synthesis to DMT. Unfortunately, while this in theory is possible, experimentally it has never been fully validated. The amount of DMT that is produced is likely to be extremely small. Specific experiments have been carried out on mice, where they blocked the degradation and ultimately metabolism of DMT, through a blockade of monoamine oxidase, which is the chief enzyme that breaks down DMT and other catechol amines such as dopamine, serotonin, and noradrenaline. And the outcome in terms of the experimental set up is to lead to an accumulation of DMT in the brain, since it cannot be destroyed anymore. And after extended time frames of blocking the degradation of DMT, the amount that then has been found in the brain of mice was in the levels of picograms, which is a step below micrograms. It’s very very little. And in terms of receptor activation especially at 5-HEO 2 receptors, this is not enough to elicit the kind of meaningful psychedelic experiences we associate with DMT, which is usually in the scale of micrograms, which are almost impossible to attain in a natural way. So DMT is there, or likely its there, but there is just not enough of it to really drive a psychedelic experience. And even in the brain of humans, harvested post mortem, DMT has not even been found out all. There are different theories; DMT may actually be broken down quite quickly after death so after these brains are harnessed there may not be anymore at that point, even though there could have been some before. But nonetheless, many other neurotransmitters follow the same fate, and we can still detect them. So yes, DMT is very powerful, DMT is very meaningful, it is one of the most incredible psychedelics, but for the data we have available today, this is how we ought to treat it, as a psychedelic, as an exogenous psychedelic that you have to provide in flat (five?) doses to really drive a real psychedelic experience. At the level of endogenous production, we have no evidence that this actually occurs. The romanticisation of DMT, the endogenous DMT in the brain, especially at the level of the pineal gland, it is still very much a fairy tale. It is beautiful, it makes sense, the iconography throughout history corroborates this, but scientifically we have no evidence whatsoever that this actually is the case.
JB: Now a friend of mine John Dean works in the research team GIMO at Michigan State university, and they conducted experiments on rodents where they injected potassium chloride into the heart to cause instant death, and at the same time they measured via a probe inserted at the pineal gland the spike in DMT, and it increased by at least three times the threshold baseline level. But you’re still saying that it would be far too low to elicit a psychedelic experience?
JA: For anything to be really psychedelic, for DMT, considering that we are working with picograms, you would have to augment the concentration of it, not by 300% or even a 1000%. This would actually have to spike a hundred thousand times, and still we would struggle, especially considering that would really have to be the case within seconds. Not even saliva gets produced at that kind of rate, so we’re really struggling with the numbers here. And in terms of that, other experiments have been carried out, and it is true, at the moment of death, there is a spike in the production of a number of neurotransmitters. DMT can definitely be one of them. But this can be explained in different ways as well. When a subject is to die, there is a number of mechanisms within the brain that prepare the brain for potential death. This usually extends at the level of augmented cortical activity, meaning that the last layer of the brain, the cortex, the one that usually provides us with consciousness, fires up much more than normal. There are many explanations for this. The most intuitive is that the brain at that stage knows that the situation is critical, and so it creates the basis, for lack of a better word, for endogenous doping of performance, so that this is the last resort to make critical, salient, and effective decisions. In electronic systems it could be termed an overclocking of cortical activity to have more information, to make better decisions. This increased cortical activity very often translates into secretion and production of all neurotransmitters – glutamate, serotonin, dopamine, adrenaline, and noradrenaline. And of course, DMT has jumped on this bandwagon itself. But this doesn’t necessarily make it about DMT, and nevertheless, this kind of phenomena that people who are about to die, or have been brought back from death, and all of this they describe, are actually far more likely to be driven by just higher cortical activity and all these other neurotransmitters being secreted in higher amounts.
JB: Now there are two very interesting psychedelics of which very little research has been done in science, and they are especially idiosyncratic and bizarre in their effects. One is Salvinorin A, from the salvia plant, and the other is Datura. Now I believe you have some experience, would you like to share your experience, perhaps starting with salvia?
JB: Datura is only used by very experienced shamans in the amazon, who use it very very sparingly. Other than that its use is pretty widespread among sadhus and swamis across India. Indeed we were talking to Rio earlier today who said that he met a swami that was taken from his family – his family gave him over to a bunch of swamis because they saw promise in him from a very young age. And from the age of 6 he was chewing on datura with beetle nut. And they seem to have harnessed its properties to bolster their spiritual progression. You’ve had some experience – can you share some of your insights?
JA: Well Datura…Its defiantly a troubled child in the realm of psychoactive entheogens. Its highly toxic, its highly psychoactive, and not just the centrally inside the brain, but also peripherally. It acts on a very specific subclass of acitocholine receptors, the muscarinic ones. And the muscarinic receptors are not just in the brain. They are also in the periphery, working alongside the ganglions to produce peripheral effects. These include secretions in the mouth, dilation of pupils, Goosebumps, all these peripheral things. So when one is to consume Datura, whose active constituents are scopolamine and atropine, the anti muscarinic compounds, there is a whole range of symptoms that one experiences during the progression into the altered state. Eventually also the heart gets affected, blood vessels get affected, its very dangerous. So there is a very thin vale between shamanic use and the lethal concentration. So yes, Datura is not a plant to be taken irresponsibly. It’s very hazardous. I have consumed it myself, several times, and with at least a couple of them I still feel that I am lucky to be alive, because what happens is that you lose total control of who you are, where you are, what you’re doing. Your moral compass becomes disintegrated, it’s tricky. You may lose awareness of where you are, and then regain it several hours later – 3,2,5,10 – one, two days – a time frame in which you are fully couple of action, you are coordinated, you seem to know what you are doing but you are stripped of your natural decision making. So you are basically propelled into a state of deep sleep dreaming. Very similar to sleep walking. And anything really goes within that time frame, where a subject can be extremely injurious to him or herself and those around them.
JB: For the final question. I became quite fixated on the phenomenon of terminal lucidity, whereby people with neurological degenerative diseases such as CGD or Alzheimer’s, they become like vegetables and they lose up to 50% or more of their neuron. Holes form and the brain shrinks, and yet just before they die, between about 5 – 10% of these people regain their full cognitive faculties. They call up their loved ones, family and friends, and say ‘I love you, goodbye’, and then soon after pass away. This is a huge anomaly in science. No one seems to be able to explain this phenomenon. When I posed this question to a panel which included some scientists, including Rudolph Tanz and Deepak Chopra – Obviously Deepak went into the consciousness is not in the brain, it is non-local etc., this is proof for that…what possible explanation would you lie to put forth?
JA: Well first and foremost I personally don’t believe that the person goes back to full faculty predating the neuro-degeneration. They most likely return to a level of mental capacity that allows them to at least convey their last messages.
JB: But this could in itself prove that consciousness and memories are not stored locally in the brain or not generated from the brain.
JA: Absolutely, but at the same time we have no scientific tool to fully elaborate on that. In terms of the ability for these individuals to carry out these last important undertakings before dying, can be described in the same way I tried to elucidate with the spiking of DMT and neurotransmitters just before death. The brain is about to die, the body is signaling it, and therefore the brain knows that this is it. This usually leads to a surge of cortical activity.
JB: Which neurotransmitters in particular? I discussed this with a Harvard neuroscientist and she said that glutamate would be the main neurotransmitter involved and your brain would just be flooded with it as you reach death, and your brain tries a last ditch resort to survive. Her money was on glutamate being responsible.
JA: I would concur. I would agree glutamate as maybe the most powerful drive, then we would also need to consider the other neurotransmitters to provide richness for the messages that are to be conveyed. These would include of course dopamine, serotonin, noradrenaline, and oxytocin even. But yes, glutamate is by far the major neurotransmitter to get shit done. When the situation becomes that critical, you need to do it fast and you need to do it as well as you can. I think glutamate is definitely on top of the pyramid, and then there is all the others.
JB: You plan to film some documentaries exploring indigenous cultures in remote parts of the world like rainforests and deserts etc. What is your purpose and reasoning behind it, do you think they have some ancient entheogenic usage that we could bring back and help Western society with?
JA: Absolutely. We, in the last few hundred years gave full agency to our decision making in terms of our society to a very specific model, which is the scientific method. And that has served us very well. I am a scientist myself and of course abide by he general guidelines, the procedure, but of course the scientific method is bound to be constrained by technology available at any given time. This usually makes things faster, and makes them very precise and very reproducible. Alternative methods have been deployed throughout history by other cultures that instead were given much more extended time frames. Generations of generations, hundreds of years, thousands of years, where they could carry out a similar procedure not through technological methodology, but mostly through trial and error, constant improvement in their tribes and their practice, and they would eventually work out what works best, what kills more, what kills less, within the tribe you feel constant feedback. So I personally believe that they have a lot to teach not necessarily in a magical way or an esoteric way. There is also that aspect of things which I don’t personally discuss much, because I try to be as evidence-based as possible. But trial and error is pretty much what science is based upon as well. And these cultures have definitely done that plenty
JB: And it seems that some of their practice may harness some of the phenomenon of the placebo effect, which is a scientific fact, it cannot be ignored
JA: 100% the placebo effect is very powerful, it’s very important, we use it everyday, even in domains that we are not aware of. So these cultures have a lot to teach. We have a lot to learn. And with the scientific method we have a very powerful substrate that still needs a lot of inspiration. And a lot of teachings. And then we can try and integrate one way or another. And for us to do that we could carry out our normal advancement, in the ways we’ve always done it, but we risk reinventing the wheel in our own way which could be a little bit more low resolution, a little bit more approximate, or we could try to go there, try to take systems that have already been tried and tested before, and then try to integrate them in our understanding of the world, and this is why I long to be in close contact with these cultures, to go there with as little bias as possible, and see how they have approached problems that we are working on now and that we have not found solutions for. And try to bring back some of the wisdom. In their own way, and eventually in our own.
JB: Thank you very much.