The Science of Cannabinoids

June 10, 2016

Humans have used marijuana for medical purposes for thousands of years. But only in the past few decades have scientists begun to understand how the wide range of chemicals found in cannabis work in the body when it comes to marijuana for medical use.

“We’re in much better shape now than we ever have been to know exactly what’s in there, so we can have cannabis that’s quantified in terms of the major psychoactive ingredients,” explained Mark Ware, director of clinical research at the Alan Edwards Pain Management Unit at the McGill University Health Centre, in an interview with Healthline. “We’ve got thousands of patients who’ve been using medical marijuana now in some kind of legal regime for dozens of years, and nobody’s ever tracked these patients over time,” he said. “We could track the patients, we could map the patients’ [symptoms] with the particular cannabis that they’re using, and we could be learning from that interaction between patient and plant to see: Are there some combinations of cannabinoids that are better for certain syndromes and symptoms than others?”

Among these ingredients are at least 104 active cannabinoids. They mimic the actions of signaling chemicals in the brain called endocannabinoids, which dock with specific receptors on the surface of cells. Some cannabinoids also dock with other receptors, including those for serotonin and adrenaline.

Meet the Cannabinoids

  • delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)
  • tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV)
  • cannabigerol (CBG)
  • cannabidiol (CBD)
  • cannabidiolic acid (CBDA)

Each chemical acts on different receptors in different ways. For example, THCV blocks the mind-altering effects of THC while simultaneously combatting inflammation in the body, which may help relieve symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and protect against liver damage. It also changes how the serotonin receptor behaves during psychosis, potentially offering a treatment for schizophrenia.

Meanwhile, CBG’s unique profile of activity at adrenaline and serotonin receptors makes it good for treating pain.

CBD and CBDA, on the other hand, are better candidates to treat nausea. Other possible uses of cannabinoids include treating stroke, PTSD, epilepsy, and drug addiction.

However, there are dozens of strains of medical marijuana on the market, each claiming to have different properties for treating different symptoms.