People have been turning to desert toads and ocean sponges for psychedelic experiences.
Researchers say that certain psychedelic compounds, such as 5-MeO-DMT, may provide therapeutic benefits to patients.
MDs should let patients know there are risks involved with using psychedelic drugs.
People have long sought psychedelics (also referred to as entactogenic or dissociative psychoactive drugs) to enhance mood, cognition, and perception—frequently leading to therapeutic and spiritual experiences. The use of certain psychoactive substances—from natural compounds found in, say, plants or fungi—predates written history across global cultures and rituals.
While the psychedelic scare propaganda from the 1960s and 70s would have you believe otherwise, today’s researchers believe that some psychedelics may be of therapeutic benefit to human health.
According to Pharmacology & Therapeutics, “various lines of research suggest that classic psychedelics [lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), mescaline, and psilocybin] might hold strong potential as therapeutics, and as tools for experimentally investigating mystical experiences and behavioral-brain function more generally.”
Certain states, like Oregon, have legalized or decriminalized psychedelic drugs like psilocybin (“mushrooms”). In Colorado, lawmakers are trying to create a regulatory framework for legal psychedelics. The goal?: “[T]o set policies on ‘healing centers’ where adults 21 and older could receive psychedelic treatment,” according to news reports.
But beyond the more common psychedelics—like LSD, psilocybin, and mescaline—there are many others sought after by those eager to undergo a mind-altering experience. And some of these drugs come from animals or sea life, according to Science News.
Why desert toads & sea sponges offer a psychedelic trip
Last year, the National Park Service posted a message on their Facebook page, warning people against licking the Sonoran Desert toad. “These toads have prominent parotoid glands that secrete a potent toxin,” the post states. “It can make you sick if you handle the frog or get the poison in your mouth.”
But there’s more: The toad’s secretion is psychedelic because it contains 5-methoxy-N, N-dimethyltryptamine (5-MeO-DMT), according to the New York Times. Even though some people are just catching on to 5-MeO-DMT (leading to poaching and the risk of extinction), it’s not new. The Journal of Psychopharmacology notes that “[p]lants containing 5-MeO-DMT have been used throughout history for ritual and spiritual purposes.” 
According to Daniel F. Kelly, MD, a neurosurgeon and Director and co-founder of the Pacific Neuroscience Institute (where he is a member of its Treatment & Research in Psychedelics program), the core difference between 5MeO-DMT and other drugs (like psilocybin and LSD) is that the former is much shorter-acting, making it a solid candidate for studies.
“Typically lasting only 45 to 60 minutes when inhaled intranasally, [5MeO-DMT] causes similar profound alterations in visual and auditory perception, sense of time and space as well as sense of self, including, in some individuals, ego dissolution,” Dr. Kelly says.
According to a Forbes article, some (including Mike Tyson) turn to 5-MeO-DMT for a quick high. “It’s almost like dying and being reborn…It’s inconceivable. I tried to explain it to some people, to my wife, I don’t have the words to explain it. It’s almost like you’re dying, you’re submissive, you’re humble, you’re vulnerable — but you’re invincible still in all,” Tyson describes.
Research from 2022 shows that several biotech companies have expressed interest in developing 5‐MeO‐DMT formulations, most notably for treating depression. However, they note that further investigation is needed to understand the neurophysiological and neural mechanisms behind its efficacy.
5-MeO-DMT might also be risky, as it’s been known to cause “visionary and auditory distortion, hyperthermia, head-twitch, and stimulus control,” according to Current Drug Metabolism. It’s sometimes “co-abused with an MAOI (monoamine oxidase inhibitors) such as harmaline to enhance hallucinations.” This can lead to severe or fatal serotonin toxicity in animal models. In humans, death has been reported in cases of abuse of 5-MeO-DMT and harmaline.
People also want to extract other DMT-like compounds called 5-bromo-DMT and 5,6-dibromo-DMT from ocean sponges (like the pitted sponge).
5,6-Dibromo-DMT showed “significant antidepressant-like action” in rodents, while 5-bromo-DMT was found to have sedative effects and a “significant reduction of locomotor activity,” according to research.
It should be noted that 5-MeO-DMT, 5-bromo-DMT, and 5,6-dibromo-DMT are derivatives of another drug, N, N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT). DMT was popularized in the 1990s by researcher Rick Strassman, who called it the “spirit molecule.”
What MDs should know
The bottom line?: According to David Feifel, MD, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego and Medical Director of Kadima Neuropsychiatry Institute, psychedelic drugs like DMT have “the potential to heal mental trauma, but also to worsen it, in the same way, chemotherapy, administered correctly, can save a person’s life from cancer but can also be fatally toxic if not administered under expert oversight.”
For example, Dr. Feifel explains that hallucinations caused by DMT can lead to traumatic memories, increased anxiety, and psychosis.
Psychedelics can also affect the body, Dr. Kelly stresses. “Some psychedelics can also cause transient spikes in blood pressure and stress on the cardiovascular system,” he says. That said, they are generally considered non-addictive.
Dr. Feifel says that patients should be encouraged to refrain from experimenting with these drugs, especially if they’re “of the age at which [their] brain is still developing— which is until the mid-twenties.”
Dr. Kelly notes that these drugs aren’t exactly legal, either. Natural psychedelics, he explains, “are classified as Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) schedule 1 [and are] thus only available legally through clinical trials, with some religious use exceptions.” In clinical trials designed to assess the drugs’ therapeutic values, “patients are carefully screened, prepared, and are accompanied for their psychedelic ‘journey’ with experienced guides, and with careful psychological follow-up (integration),” Dr. Kelly says. Otherwise, some people access these drugs through labs, retreats, or other sources.
“DMT-like drugs are currently being studied in human trials for potential FDA approval so that, hopefully, soon they can be legally prescribed in the doses and manner that optimize the therapeutic benefits and minimize the risks,” Dr. Feifel adds.