Steven Barker is a professor emeritus at Louisiana State University. His research career spans almost five decades, during which he studied how hallucinogens work, whether humans produce psychedelic compounds, and what role they may play in neuroprotection, psychiatric disorders, perception, creativity, imagination, dream states, and near-death experiences.

          Portrait of man with a white goatee wearing an aquamarine shirt and burgundy spectacles.
Researchers study the extraordinary effects of hallucinogenic drugs on humans, but Steven Barker is fascinated by the roles that endogenous hallucinogens play in ordinary human experiences.
steven barker

What interests you about psychedelics research?

People find psychedelics interesting because of the hallucinations they produce, but they also play physiological roles at much lower concentrations. Psychedelics help grow, maintain, and repair neurons in the brain. Endogenous psychedelics produced by the human body may also protect neurons from hypoxia. 

Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) is a plant extract that elicits powerful psychedelic experiences. Humans and animals also produce DMT in small quantities. We showed that inducing hypoxia in rats increased endogenous DMT levels in the brain and that inducing cardiac arrest enhanced these levels further.1 In fact, elevated endogenous DMT may underlie hallucinations during near-death experiences. Endogenous psychedelics may also be involved in natural hallucinatory-like states such as creativity, imagination, and dreaming. 

How has the psychedelics field evolved?

We lost about twenty years when hallucinogenics research was illegal beginning in the 1960s. Rick Strassman—a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine—broke the ice in the 1990s when he started DMT research. Since then, scientists have learned that exogenous psychedelics derived from plants and fungi can help treat depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and addiction. 

We published data on DMT in the pineal gland and visual cortex of the rat brain and found indirect evidence that the enzyme and precursors needed for its biosynthesis, storage, and release are present in the human brain. New information is emerging about the previously unrecognized roles of psychedelics, but their acceptance will take time given the history and myths surrounding hallucinogens. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.


  1. Dean J, et al. Sci Rep. 2019;9:9333.