Ever wonder how Cannabis works in the brain and why it has it’s familiar effects on you?
Cannabis is a very unique drug. It works differently than any other psychoactive drug. Every drug enters the brain and causes neurons to fire signals to other neurons. It does so by either causing a release of a native neurotransmitter or by directly attaching to a receptor on a neuron. This process causes a specific message to be transmitted forward to a certain area in the brain which causes the effect of the drug.
For example, when someone drinks alcohol, the ethanol molecule enters the blood stream and travels across the blood brain barrier into the brain. It attaches to certain neurons that have a specific neurotransmitter called GABA. Once the ethanol molecule binds, that neuron will release GABA to the next neuron in order to slow things down. GABA is the most abundant neurotransmitter in the brain therefore alcohol has it’s effects in many different areas. If there is enough GABA-neuron activity it will eventually cause the brain to shut down.
This communication happens in a forward or “down stream” direction. Cannabis on the other hand works completely different.
The active molecule in Cannabis is THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol). When it attaches to the THC receptor on certain neurons they will actually tell the neuron before them or “upstream” from them to calm down. It communicates retroactively and suppresses the upstream neuron’s activity.
So what effect does this have?
Scientists were completely baffled by this finding. They almost didn’t believe it at first. Historically the discovery of cannabis has led to many surprises. At first scientists were amazed when they discovered the THC receptor in the brain. An even greater discovery followed when they found endogenous neurotransmitters that attached to the THC receptor.
That’s right, your brain actually makes it’s own form of Cannabis. They called these molecules Anandamides.
This discovery naturally led to the biggest question of all; Why!!!
Why would our brain make it’s own form of Cannabis?
What Does Marijuana Do In The Brain?
Several theories regarding the nature of THC and our own endogenous Anandamide have emerged. The research is still on-going but I think I have stumbled on one of the most plausible explanations.
Early on, people made the connection between a runner’s high and the high derived from Cannabis. Supposedly, the two feel very similar. Scientists have found a high level of Anandamide shortly after someone experiences the runner’s high. Runners report feeling “in the zone” which is also something cannabis users frequently experience. Why running releases endogenous Anandamide is still a mystery.
This feeling of complete emersion may be due to the Anandamide induced suppression of our sensations and thoughts allowing us to become hyper focused on the task at hand.
People who use cannabis will frequently report short term memory loss. This is thought to be useful to the brain in certain circumstances. For example, parking your car in the same parking lot every day at work. When you park in different spots it is beneficial for your brain to forget where you parked the day before and so on. This theory fits what we see happen in the brain. The stimulation of the Anandamide receptor causes a retrograde action to shut down the preceding neuron. In a sense it is your brain’s mechanism to erase useless memories.
Our brain is constantly bombarded by an enormous amount of sensory data. Your eyes, ears, nose, touch and proprioception is continuously taking in data from your environment. Just be still for a second and close your eyes and listen to how many different sounds you can identify, then open your eyes and look at how many different objects, shapes and colors are within your field of vision. You would get nothing done if you had to consciously sift through all this data.
That’s where the Anandamide system comes into play. Your brain uses this method to eliminate the data that are not useful to you in that moment.
Cannabis on the other hand provides THC which is likely much stronger that your endogenous Anandamide and may possibly overwhelm this system of forgetting. Imagine receiving a 100 pieces of sensory information and normally the brain will suppress 70% of this through the Anandamide system. Now what if you add exogenous high potency THC to further eliminate sensations and leave just 5% available to focus on. This may be why people who use Cannabis report heightened sensations. Suddenly they are a lot more aware of just a few of sensory inputs. This is why music sounds better. With excess suppression and heightened awareness of the auditory input, the music will sound much better. This is why some people report they can understand rap music better because they are able to focus and follow what the artist is saying. The same is likely true for why food taste better, taking a walk in nature is more fulfilling and human interaction more engaging. Joe Rogan is the most successful Pod Caster in history. His method of interviewing is unbelievably captivating, you can tell he is so focused on the other person. This leads him to ask very engaging questions. It is no surprise that he openly admits to using cannabis before his interviews.
Cannabis also causes a slowing of time. I can’t quite wrap my head around this one. It may be similar to our senses where we become hyper focused on the passage of time. The problem with this argument is that people often experience time as going by extremely fast when performing a very engaging task. During my Residency I worked in the Emergency Room. I recall some 12 hour shift that seemed to simply fly by. Before I knew it the entire shift was over. This always happened when the ER was slammed. The busier it got, the faster time seemed to go by. I’m still trying to find a plausible explanation for why Cannabis users perceive time as slowing but will update this article as soon as I do.
Slowed time, heightened senses, feelings of euphoria, can this have a negative impact?
Is Cannabis Bad for You?
This doesn’t sound all that bad, why not improve your sensations temporarily? The cannabis industry is trying to capitalize on this in order to make more money. I can see slogans in the future like this “try cannabis, your wife’s cooking will never be better,” or “try cannabis, you can finally understand your favorite rap music,” or “try cannabis and lose weight.”
The problem with Cannabis is that people get too focused on the moment and do not plan for their future. This is the theory behind what is called “amotivational syndrome.” This is also the fear of most parents with teenagers who smoke. They see their child not doing much to progress toward their future. They may have plans and dreams and ideas but exert no effort to realize these ideals. Is this true? I don’t know, but the aforementioned explanation of how Cannabis works in the brain gives us an idea how this phenomenon may occur.
By definition Cannabis is a psychoactive drug, therefore can also become very addictive if used in the right circumstances, click here to learn more about cannabis addiction.
I have not come across a plausible theory of why Cannabis causes the munchies but I will update this article as soon as I do. I suspect it is the presence of CB2 receptors in the GI tract, but as a scientist I am curious as to why mother nature caused this to evolve?
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Disclaimer, this article was largely based on a book I read by Michael Pollen called “The Botany of Desire.” The research on Cannabis and it’s effects is unfortunately still very young therefore mostly theory at this point.