No inhaling necessary—your brain produces a marijuana-like chemical with the ability to reduce pain, anxiety, and depression, and scientists are uncovering more about how this neurotransmitter works.
Sometimes called “the bliss molecule,” the brain chemical anandamide is one of the compounds produced by the endocannabinoid system. These compounds are very similar to the active ingredient in marijuana, THC.
A new study by UC Irvine researchers reveals that a protein in the brain ferries anandamide to sites in brain cells where enzymes break down and inactivate the “bliss” chemical. The study, published in Nature Neuroscience, shows that blocking this protein increases the potency of anandamide, and may unlock new possibilities in pain control.
The revelation about anandamide transport and breakdown opens up the potential to develop pain medications that don’t produce sedation, addiction, or other central nervous system effects associated with opiates, which are often used to control severe and chronic pain.
UCI professor of pharmacology Daniele Piomelli led the team that interpreted how the protein, called FLAT, binds with anandamide and escorts it to cell sites where it is broken down by fatty acid amide hydrolase, or FAAH, enzymes. This process inactivates the “bliss” effect of anandamide.
The new insight into these complex brain pathways has implications not only for pain control, but also holds potential for curbing addiction to cocaine and nicotine, the researchers say. Amplifying the effects of anandamide allows for its analgesic properties to work, but without the “high” produced by marijuana. In addition, this new understanding of how the FLAT protein leads to anandamide breakdown may also result in breakthroughs in regulating food consumption.
Piomelli and his team are collaborating with Italian researchers to produce specific drug compounds to boost the effects of anandamide.
In another study published earlier this year in Nature Neuroscience, a drug created by Piomelli and his team was shown to increase the effects of anandamide at the site of an injury, reducing pain at the peripheral tissue level. This discovery was another important piece of the anandamide puzzle, because it was previously believed that the chemical worked only in the brain. The knowledge that anandamide can reduce pain at the site of an injury without entering the central nervous system creates the possibility for targeted new pain relief medications.
The UCI research on anandamide is still at the animal and computational level, and scientists haven’t yet determined how their findings may apply to specific conditions such as arthritis and fibromyalgia. However, if the findings are confirmed in human studies, the ability to harness the benefits of the brain’s “bliss” compound could bring life-changing relief for millions who suffer from pain-related disability. According to current data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 50 million U.S. adults, or about one in five, has arthritis. This number is expected to climb sharply as baby boomers age, meaning that regulating the body’s own marijuana-like substances could become increasingly important.