Natural high? THC-like molecules help the brain cope with stress

CHICAGO — Does the human body already have a system that works like the THC in marijuana? A new study reveals that molecules similar to tetrahydrocannabinol, the active ingredient in cannabis, help human brains cope with stress. Researchers from Northwestern Medicine in Chicago found that a key emotional center in the brain, known as the amygdala, releases its own cannabinoid molecules in response to stress.

In a study conducted on mice, scientists found that the amygdala produces these cannabinoids during events which put a strain on the brain. These molecules help counteract the stress signals coming from another key area, the hippocampus, which plays a role in memory and emotion. This discovery lends further weight to the idea that our body naturally produces these molecules to cope with stress.

“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,” says corresponding study author Dr. Sachi Patel, chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and a Northwestern Medicine psychiatrist, in a university release.

Stress is a major contributor to a range of mental health disorders, from generalized anxiety and depression to PTSD. Dr. Patel hints that if there’s an issue with the brain’s ability to produce these cannabinoids, it might increase one’s vulnerability to these disorders. However, this connection still needs confirmation in human studies.

Young woman suffering from brain issue, stress, headache
Individuals were categorized into one of three lifestyle groups: unfavorable, intermediate, and favorable. Those in the favorable group were 57 percent less likely to develop the condition.
(© Feodora – stock.adobe.com)

For their research, Northwestern scientists employed a new protein sensor to observe the presence of these cannabinoids in specific brain connections, or synapses, in real time. They found that different types of stress led to the release of these molecules. When scientists eliminated the receptor in the brain where these molecules act, the mice showed a reduced ability to deal with stress and decreased motivation.

Particularly, these mice responded more passively to stress and showed less interest in sweet water, a behavior similar to the reduced ability to experience pleasure seen in humans with conditions like depression and PTSD.

One potential treatment avenue for stress-related disorders might lie in the endocannabinoid system, which is the system in our body that these cannabis-like molecules affect.

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

The study was published in the journal Cell Reports.

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