Stress, marijuana and the brain


A group of researchers has found cannabinoid receptors, through which marijuana exerts its effects, in a key emotional hub in the brain involved in regulating anxiety and the flight-or-fight response. While the discovery may have occurred in mice, this is the first time cannabinoid receptors have been identified in the central nucleus of the amygdala. This may explain why marijuana helps to ease anxiety.

Understanding natural endocannabinoids

These findings “…could be highly important for understanding how cannabis exerts its behavioral effects,” said Sachin Patel, MD, PhD, senior author and professor of Psychiatry and of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics. In addition to finding the receptors, the researchers also showed for the first time how nerve cells in this part of the brain make and release their own natural “endocannabinoids.”

Stress relief through marijuana can lead to cycles with diminishing returns, eventual addiction

From this study and others, researchers know that:
- The natural endocannabinoid system regulates anxiety and stress by dampening excitatory signals
- Chronic stress or emotional trauma can cause a reduction of both the production of endocannabinoids and the effectiveness of the receptors. As a result, anxiety increases.
- While marijuana can reduce anxiety, chronic use down-regulates the receptors, thus increasing anxiety. This can lead to a vicious cycle which leads to addiction.

Cannabinoids in the brain

“We know where the receptors are, we know their function, we know how these neurons make their own cannabinoids,” Patel noted. “Now can we see how that system is affected by … stress and chronic (marijuana) use? It might fundamentally change our understanding of cellular communication in the amygdala.”

Source: Neuron, MedicalNewsToday


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