Marijuana is a drug with a mixed history. Mention it to one person, and it will conjure images of potheads lost in a spaced-out stupor. To another, it may represent relaxation, a slowing down of modern madness. To yet another, marijuana means hope for cancer patients suffering from the debilitating nausea of chemotherapy, or it is the promise of relief from chronic pain. The drug is all these things and more, for its history is a long one, spanning millennia and continents. It is also something everyone is familiar with, whether they know it or not. Everyone grows a form of the drug, regardless of their political leanings or recreational proclivities. That is because the brain makes its own marijuana, natural compounds called endocannabinoids (after the plant's formal name, Cannabis sativa).
The study of endocannabinoids in recent years has led to exciting discoveries. By examining these substances, researchers have exposed an entirely new signaling system in the brain: a way that nerve cells communicate that no one anticipated even 15 years ago. Fully understanding this signaling system could have far-reaching implications. The details appear to hold a key to devising treatments for anxiety, pain, nausea, obesity, brain injury and many other medical problems. Ultimately such treatments could be tailored precisely so that they would not initiate the unwanted side effects produced by marijuana itself.
This article was originally published with the title The Brain's Own Marijuana.