When people smoke pot they are able to chill out, relax, and relieve stress. THC (marijuana) does not do this directly. Rather it activates receptors in the brain which, in turn, relieve stress. An interesting finding just came out of a research study. It turns out that when a person is under stress their own brain may also release a cannabinoid molecule which then triggers the same receptors and reduces stress. The brain’s fear center, the amygdala is where this appears to happen.
Why and How the Brain Responds to Stress
When we are threatened it is important for the brain to wake us up and activate thinking and muscular activity so that we can protect ourselves, our families and the tribe. Human are here today because the fight and flight response is built into our physiology and has helped us responded to dangerous and stressful situations since the dawn of the species. Unfortunately, the same mechanisms that help us respond to stress may not turn off when there is no huge danger. This makes us suffer, wears us down and makes us ill. Fortunately, the brain also has ways to help reduce our response to stress.
Stress Relief Via the Amygdala
There are parts of the brain that are not involved in language and problem solving like the frontal cortex. The hippocampus is a lower part of the brain that deals with emotions and memories. It is often responsible to sending an alarm to the brain’s fear processing center, the amygdala. Research has just recently shown that one of the things the amygdala does in response is release cannabinoid molecules that dampen the signal from the hippocampus.
How Is This Information Useful?
The fact that our own body makes and releases cannabinoid molecules suggests that these compounds are part of the body’s natural way of coping with stress. Chronic stress can lead to depression, make conditions like PTSD worse, and even lead a person to seek relief from addictive substances. Understanding how the body copes with stress will help us deal with stress and the fallout from stress. It may help discover new medicines or therapies for dealing with mental illnesses.
How Well Does Your Cannabinoid Signaling System Work?
We all are built more or less the same and then we aren’t. Some folks are taller. Some have blond hair instead of brown. Some of us deal with long term stress much better than others. There is a good question raised by the discovery of cannabinoid secretions by the amygdala. Is the tendency to suffer more from stress a deficiency of a process deep in the brain in the amygdala as it responds to signals from the hippocampus? Is there a way to test for this in regular people in real time?
Animal Study of Amygdala Cannabinoid Secretion
The study that identified the amygdala hippocampus connection and cannabinoid secretion issue was done on mice. The scientists used a newly discovered sensor protein. That protein identifies cannabinoid molecules at brain synapses. They found that during periods of stress the levels of cannabinoids went up. They also found that secretion was associated with specific brain wave patterns. By removing the type 1 cannabinoid receptors at synapses connecting the hippocampus and amygdala, test subjects were likely to be immobilized by stress.
What Does This Have to Do With Treating Mental Illness?
No, this research is not an argument for legalizing pot or using it to treat every single mental illness. It is an argument to better understand the body’s own endocannabinoid system. To the extent that this system is not functioning well in people who are suffering from stress, medicines or treatments that turn the system back on would be very useful. Thus researchers are looking at ways to “turn on” this system in the amygdala and amygdala-hippocampal junction. These will be clinical studies on real live people and not animal studies in a lab.
What Does This Have to Do With Veteran Suicide?
Mental illnesses like depression, PTSD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, substance abuse disorders, and more are both likely to increase stress and respond adversely to it. All of these are risk factors for veteran suicide. To the extent that we can treat these mental health problems, we can decrease the risk of veterans ending their own lives. That, and simply relieving the suffering of mental illness are the long term goals. Getting there will happen in little steps as researchers put together the pieces of the puzzle for issues like the brain secreting its own cannabinoids in response to stress.