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Natural cannabinoids in the brain relieve stress

In recent years, cannabis has taken center stage in discussions about mental health. The psychoactive cannabinoid THC has been shown to relieve stress and anxiety. 

But what if our brains have their own natural version of this compound that plays a role in mitigating stress? New research from Northwestern University suggests that this might be the case.

The study suggests that our brains remain active when exposed to stress. The experts found that the cannabinoid molecules released by our own cerebral network seem to affect the brain similarly to THC.

Stress response

Researchers have poorly understood the specific pathways and neural circuits that natural cannabinoids influence.

The study reveals that during stressful situations, the amygdala – an integral emotional center in the brain – releases cannabinoid molecules. 

These molecules subsequently act to temper the stress alarm sent from the hippocampus. This part of the brain is a critical memory and emotion center. 

The findings support the existing theory that these self-produced cannabinoid molecules serve as the body’s innate response to stress.

Stress can exacerbate or trigger psychiatric disorders ranging from major depression to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

Study co-author Dr. Sachi Patel is an expert in Behavioral Sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and a psychiatrist at Northwestern Medicine.  

“Understanding how the brain adapts to stress at the molecular, cellular and circuit level could provide critical insight into how stress is translated into mood disorders and may reveal novel therapeutic targets for the treatment of stress-related disorders,” said Dr. Patel.

According to Dr. Patel, the study indicates that impairments in this endogenous cannabinoid signaling system in the brain could lead to a greater susceptibility to developing stress-related psychiatric disorders. These include depression and PTSD, although this remains to be determined in humans.

Cannabinoid production 

For their research, the Northwestern team used a cutting-edge protein sensor to detect the presence of cannabinoid molecules at specific brain synapses. 

The study revealed that the amygdala, under certain high-frequency activity patterns, can produce cannabinoids. Researchers observed these molecules in mice subjected to various stress types.

Cannabinoid receptor 

When the experts removed the target for these cannabinoids, the cannabinoid receptor type 1, mice demonstrated a diminished ability to handle stress. 

More specifically, without these receptors at the crucial juncture between the hippocampus and amygdala, the mice exhibited passive stress responses. 

Mice without the cannabinoid receptor also had a decreased inclination for sweetened water post-stress. This suggests the mice were experiencing anhedonia – the loss of ability to feel pleasure – which is a common symptom of depressive disorders.

Study implications 

Researchers increasingly recognize the endocannabinoid system as a viable target for drug development for stress-related disorders. Ultimately, the findings may help to inform future therapeutic strategies.

“Determining whether increasing levels of endogenous cannabinoids can be used as potential therapeutics for stress-related disorders is a next logical step from this study and our previous work,” said Dr. Patel. 

“There are ongoing clinical trials in this area that may be able to answer this question in the near future.” 

More about cannabinoids

Cannabinoids have been the center of attention in both scientific and public circles for years. These intriguing compounds, primarily known for their association with the cannabis plant, have profound effects on the human body and potential therapeutic benefits.

Origins and types

Naturally, the cannabis plant produces over 100 cannabinoids. The most well-known among these is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). THC is the primary psychoactive compound in cannabis, meaning it’s responsible for the “high” or euphoric feeling users experience.

Close on its heels in terms of popularity is cannabidiol (CBD). Unlike THC, CBD doesn’t produce a high, but it holds significant medical potential.

Apart from these two, other cannabinoids like cannabinol (CBN), cannabigerol (CBG), THC-O-acetate, and tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV) also exist, and researchers are keenly exploring their potential benefits.

How cannabinoids work

Our bodies contain a system known as the endocannabinoid system (ECS). Researchers discovered the ECS when they were trying to understand how THC affected the body. The ECS plays a vital role in regulating a variety of functions, including mood, appetite, sleep, and immune system responses.

When you consume cannabinoids, they interact with the ECS. Specifically, cannabinoids bind to or influence cannabinoid receptors found throughout the body, namely CB1 and CB2 receptors. This interaction leads to the various effects and potential benefits we associate with these compounds.

Therapeutic potential

Over the years, scientists and medical professionals have studied the potential therapeutic uses of cannabinoids. Some established and potential benefits are listed below.

Pain Relief: Medical cannabis often comes into use for chronic pain relief. Both THC and CBD exhibit potential for reducing pain, especially in conditions like arthritis and multiple sclerosis.

Mental Health: Preliminary research suggests that cannabinoids, particularly CBD, may help in treating conditions like anxiety and depression. However, it’s essential to note that THC might exacerbate feelings of anxiety in some individuals.

Epilepsy: One of the most significant breakthroughs in cannabinoid research came with the understanding that CBD could help treat certain forms of epilepsy. The FDA has even approved a CBD-based drug, Epidiolex, for treating specific severe epilepsy disorders.

Neuroprotection: Initial studies indicate that cannabinoids might protect against neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. However, more research is necessary in this domain.

Legality and controversies

The legal status of cannabinoids varies worldwide. Many countries have strict regulations regarding the use and distribution of cannabis and its derivatives. In the U.S., while medical cannabis has gained legality in many states, federal law still classifies it as a Schedule I substance.

The controversy surrounding cannabinoids often stems from the potential for misuse and the psychoactive effects of THC. However, with the growing body of evidence supporting the medicinal benefits of compounds like CBD, the conversation is shifting.

In summary, cannabinoids present a promising frontier in medical research. As we delve deeper into understanding these compounds and their interaction with our bodies, we are bound to unlock even more of their potential benefits. However, as with any substance, it’s crucial to approach their use responsibly and with a clear understanding of their effects.

The research is published in the journal Cell Reports.

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