The human body has many systems. Some, such as the sympathetic nervous system, are well-known to humans. However, other systems continue to be discovered, so they aren’t recognized as much.
The endocannabinoid system is one system that has recently been discovered. This is surprising because it is crucial to most aspects of a person’s functioning. In fact, this system regulates and controls critical bodily functions, including emotional processing and cognitive functions. Scientists continue to study this system, as they want to know its role in treating various disorders.
What is the Endocannabinoid System?
Deep within the brains and bodies of humans, a complex network of chemical signals and cellular receptors exists. Cannabinoid receptors found in the brain are known as CB1 receptors and they are more numerous than other receptors in the brain. They control the level and activity of most neurotransmitters in the body. When a receptor receives feedback, it adjusts the activity of the system that provided this feedback.
Endocannabinoids are molecules in the body that stimulate the CB1 receptors. They are similar in many ways to molecules found in the cannabis plant. Humans have been using cannabis for thousands of years now to hijack this system. However, there are other cannabinoid receptors in the body.
CB2 receptors, in contrast, exist in the immune tissues of humans. They help control the body’s immune functioning. In addition, they play a role in the modulation of intestinal inflammation, contraction, and pain, which are all issues currently seen with inflammatory bowel disorders. Scientists are studying these CB2 receptors frequently because a person doesn’t get the high seen with cannabis use when these receptors are stimulated. That is a problem seen when the CB1 receptors receive stimulation.
Learning and Memory
Researchers have found that the endocannabinoid system is crucial to learning and memory. They chose to explore this area in more depth after seeing how high dosages of recreational cannabis lead to a temporary disruption in the user’s short-term memory. When the person stops using cannabis, their short-term memory returns.
Scientists also studied how humans react when given THC. They wanted to know how THC affects the user’s ability to memorize things. They also wanted to see if any patterns emerged on functional brain imaging.
Michael Pollan, in his book The Botany of Desire, writes humans have co-evolved alongside cannabis for thousands of years. They use this substance to function without being overwhelmed by all that is around them. It allows them to forget things, which may be beneficial in the treatment of PTSD. This is where the endocannabinoid system comes into play with emotional processing.
Many mental health issues stem from abnormalities in the person’s emotional processing. Researchers are looking at the endocannabinoid system to see its role in these abnormalities. One study found that THC interacts with emotional content. It increases activity in certain parts of the brain when the person is exposed to positive content while decreasing the activity with negative content exposure.
These findings led the researchers to conclude that the endocannabinoid system plays a role in the modulation of emotional processing. Scientists may be able to use this information to learn more about major depression and other psychiatric disorders that affect a person’s mood.
More work needs to be done to learn the role of the endocannabinoid system in the human body. However, what scientists have found so far is fascinating. Very few people suspected cannabis could be of help in treating different disorders, but it appears this could be part of a patient’s treatment plan in the future. Only time will tell if that is the case.