FEB 08, 2019 09:20 AM PST

Target Endocannabinoids to Treat Chronic Conditions

WRITTEN BY: Amy Loriaux

The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a newly discovered, recently studied physiological system which interfaces with the brain and many other biological systems. It is so intertwined that the secret to many different chronic diseases could be in its dysfunction. That is the main point of an article written by Aaron Yoder of the University of Arizona featured in the book Physical Activity and the Aging Brain (Academic Press).

A diagram of the many physiological systems scientists believe the ECS to be involved in. Photo source: Shutterstock (used with permission)

There are two basic tenets from Mr. Yoder's article: we still have not found viable treatment options for some chronic conditions, and we have discovered a new physiological system (the ECS) deeply involved in many biological processes. Could a better understanding of the latter could we find novel and better treatments for the former?

The ECS is currently accepted as a part of the central nervous system (CNS). It consists of endocannabinoids (ECs) such as anandamide and 2-Arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG) as well as other possible compounds. There are also two identified EC receptors (CB1 and CB2) however these receptors can be activated by other neurotransmitters, as described in a previous article in this newsletter. 

A schematic of the chemical structure of anandamide. Photo source: Shutterstock (used with permission)

The ECS has been implicated in so many studies focusing not on the brain or mental health disorders (although there is mounting literature regarding that) but also in cardiovascular diseases, kidney dysfunction, and even the gut-brain axis, to name a few. There is also major consense on the benefits of the ECS in managing pain (particularly neuropathic or arthritic) and its role as an anti-inflammatory agent.

So how can we use this multi-faceted system to our advantage in treating chronic illness? There are a few ideas. Dr. John McPartland of GW Therapeutics collaborating with researchers at the University of Vermont tested their theory that by enhancing the ECS system, either by upregulating EC receptors, increasing EC synthesis, or inhibit EC degradation, they could treat many different illnesses. They found several putative benefits of ECS upregulation through the preclinical literature, however, they concluded that there was insufficient clinical data to suggest if it would work in humans.

Another approach, by Dr. Ethan Russo of the International Cannabis and Cannabinoids Institute in Prague, to treat chronic and neurodegenerative disease is a more holistic approach, focusing on diet, exercise, and supplements with exocannabinoids, including THC. This lifestyle regimen coupled with cannabis-based supplements may prove to be a better course of action than just aiming at one neurotransmitter system to treat chronic conditions. Dr. Russo concludes that "cannabis-based drugs portend to provide future safe and effective treatments for heretofore recalcitrant neurological conditions". 

Photo source: Pixabay.com

Only with a more thorough understanding of the ECS can new and better treatments arise for many chronic conditions that plague western society today. As Mr. Yonder implies, the less we know about our own physiology the less likely we are to fix it when it goes wrong.

Sources: Biological PsychiatryPhysical Activity and the Aging Brain, LabRoots.com, American Journal of Physiology. Renal Physiology, Gastroenterology, Acta Aneasthesiologica Taiwanica, Current Clinical Pharmacology, Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience

About the Author
  • I am passionate about science. My specialties include neuroscience and psychology. I have over 10 years of biomedical neuroscience research at Arizona State University and the University of Texas at Southwestern Medical Center.
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