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Ex-Youngstown musician Jon Dean excels in DMT research

Submitted photo Jon Dean of Youngstown, former guitarist with the indie band Asleep, is earning his doctorate degree while researching the effects of the naturally produced compound dimethyltryptamine — DMT — on mental health.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one of a series of Saturday profiles of area residents and their stories. To suggest a profile, contact features editor Burton Cole at bcole@tribtoday.com.

YOUNGSTOWN — On his way to a doctorate, Jon Dean of Youngstown played the role of rock star.

Now he’s in his fifth and final year at the University of Michigan, conducting research into the powerful psychedelic compound dimethyltryptamine, known as DMT.

Like the music he once played, the chemical compound that the human body produces can influence emotions.

“Perhaps naturally occurring DMT plays some role in maintaining positive mental health in the human brain,” Dean said.

“Several studies are beginning to show that psychedelics and related compounds like MDMA (ecstasy) hold promise in treating several debilitating mental states ranging from PTSD and depression to addiction and end-of-life anxiety.

“These compounds are not panaceas, present their own dangers and certainly will not be the ideal treatment option for everyone, but they do hold tremendous potential in helping people realize they have the potential to take their lives back,” Dean said.

When Dean was a 19-year-old undergraduate student at Youngstown State University — before he declared a major in chemistry — a close friend died.

“I was experiencing some heavy anxiety for the first time, and as such was prescribed the usual sedative medications, which didn’t really help me deal with the emotions at all, so much as it tuned them all down,” Dean said.

“Around this time, I came across Rick Strassman’s book ‘DMT: The Spirit Molecule’ and I think due to the band Tool and their song about DMT called ‘Rosetta Stoned’ got me interested. The artist Alex Grey was also an inspiration,” Dean said.

During the majority of the 2000s, Dean played guitar in the popular local indie rock act Asleep. Among its accolades, the band played the acclaimed music conference South By Southwest in Austin, Texas. In 2011, the band recorded its final release, “Unpleasant Companion” with famed producer / engineer Steve Albini.

He also had taught guitar at the Rich Center for Autism at YSU and elsewhere.

“I took a pretty large break in between undergraduate and graduate training, when Asleep picked up a solid indie deal. I always knew I’d come back to science, and did so shortly after we did that Albini record.

“Then I reached out to Jimo Borjigin at the University of Michigan, due to her laboratory starting to research DMT, particularly endogenous or naturally occurring DMT, which few places in the world research,” he said. “I did my master’s in physiology and then stayed on for my Ph.D. in physiology at University of Michigan, which I hope to obtain by next summer.”

Dean set out to inquire, “Do our brains synthesize DMT, and if so, why?” His research project was finally accepted for publication on June 28 in the open access, online scientific mega-journal Scientific Reports, published by Nature Research.

The key finding of their recent work was that DMT is present, in the rat brain at least, at concentrations in the range of serotonin, which is a major neurotransmitter.

Dean said that he also found that DMT brain levels rise at cardiac arrest in rats. He said that given reports of altered states of consciousness near death by a number of cardiac arrest survivors, known as near death experiences, this is certainly intriguing.

“I want to be clear that I don’t personally believe we can currently say for sure whether or not the levels of DMT reported in our study can impact normal brain function, let alone alter consciousness in humans, especially since the study was conducted primarily in rats. However, the results do support that this is certainly possible, while also ruling out the prior notion by the scientific community that DMT is only found in tiny amounts in mammals. This is clearly not the case,” Dean said.

He made the analogy of drinking a pitcher of Bud Light versus a pitcher of Jack Daniels.

“As a graduate student, I have personally conducted this experiment with Jack Daniels,” he said with a laugh. “However, point being just because the physical amounts of DMT and serotonin we found are comparable isn’t enough. There are other properties of the two compounds to consider when comparing directly. Further research needs to be conducted, and we are working on these questions.”

The question arises, he said, can DMT be used to treat mental conditions?

“Unlike serotonin, it is able to generate these profoundly altered states of consciousness. Realizing this was true of DMT really made me question why more neuroscientists weren’t interested in this idea. That DMT had actually been found in the bodily fluids of animals including humans, suggested our bodies and brains are possibly making it. This all inspired me to acquire the training needed to study this question scientifically someday,” Dean said.

Borjigin, the director of Summer Undergraduate Research in Physiology at the University of Michigan, said Dean’s work is the first that revealed the existence of DMT-producing neurons in the neocortex of the mammalian brain.

“His work is also the first to reveal the production of DMT from living rat brains at the concentrations on par with other classical neurotransmitters. His data suggests that DMT may have a functional role in the brain,” Borjigin said.

“This research revealed the potential existence of DMT neurotransmission system, which may enhance the basic understanding of the brain’s high order functions. It may also benefit the treatment of psychiatric disorders, especially those that feature hallucinations,” Borjigin said.

Strassman said he believes Dean’s research work on DMT is helpful for several reasons. He said that one was a negative finding, which is in Dr. Borjigin’s original 2013 paper, demonstrating DMT in living rodent pineal turns out to be the result of sampling brain tissue near the pineal, rather than the pineal itself.

“Another reason is that Dean demonstrated DMT synthesis in a living rodent brain, and his human tissue findings point to, but do not yet comparably irrefutably demonstrate, a similar process in humans. The concentrations in a rodent brain are as high as those found with canonical neurotransmitters such as serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine.

“These data raise the possibility that there is a DMT neurotransmitter system, which would provide a powerful impetus to begin studies intended to understand the function of endogenous DMT,” Strassman said.

Which means secrets to better mental health could be unlocked by a guitarist from Youngstown.