This Is Your Brain On Cannabinoids

Ah, the feeling of bliss:

You feel yourself relax as tension oozes out of your body and worries, fears, and problems seem to fade away…

Life slows down measurably—from the week’s hurried, stressful pace to a deliciously calming crawl…

A feeling of happiness, even euphoria, evades your senses as you experience what can only be described as a high…

You unwind and take it all in…


Marijuana? Cannabis sativa? “Grass”? There’s another name that doesn’t get mentioned as often: cannabinoids. While marijuana is usually thought of as the pleasure substance of choice, in reality it is only a skilled mimic of cannabinoids, chemicals that already exist in our brains naturally. Marijuana only increases what we’ve already got.

What do cannabinoids do in the brain?

Although cannabinoids were discovered relatively recently in the 1990s, quite a bit of research has already been accomplished looking into these unique and mysterious brain compounds. Turns out, they’re involved in a lot of important functions.

The brain cells (neurons) are regularly very active, sending signals back and forth to each other in order to communicate.

Neurons communicate via electric and chemical signals

But in some medical conditions like stroke and traumatic brain injury, the neurons become extremely activated due to too much glutamate, a chemical that increases signaling in the brain. This can actually be harmful, because too much activity wears out the neurons and causes cell death. The good thing about cannabinoids is that they can decrease this activity, saving the neurons from wear and tear.

There’s also some evidence that cannabinoids are involved in the immune system. Immune cells in the brain called microglia are responsible for identifying enemy cells and other threats to the neurons.

Immune cells attack invading disease cells

Cannabinoids may increase the ability of immune cells to decrease disease and inflammation in the brain.

Potential treatment applications

Because of these benefits, researchers have been looking into using cannabinoids to treat brain diseases and inflammation. Medical researchers have already been investigating their effects in treating things like cancer and pain. Neurological illnesses like multiple sclerosis might benefit from cannabinoid treatments as well. In multiple sclerosis, immune cells attack the body’s own cells instead of targeting actual threats. The neurons become inflamed throughout the body, causing muscle dysfunction and eventually cognitive impairment and death.

Because of cannabinoids’ apparent ability to work in the immune system, some studies have investigated whether they do improve the lives of multiple sclerosis patients. While these brain systems are very complex and it will take much more research to really understand what is happening in the brain’s cannabinoid system, it appears that giving more cannabinoids may help reduce some of the symptoms of multiple sclerosis.

Cannabinoid drugs

How do people “take” cannabinoids? The easiest thing is to use the closest mimic of the brain’s cannabinoid chemicals—marijuana. In some research, marijuana has been shown to have health benefits. However, there are definitely some drawbacks to marijuana use as well—including obvious lung damage from smoking, muscle tremors and spasms from too much use over a long period, and possible memory problems as well.

There are some new drugs in development that deliver a small amount of cannabinoids orally and are quite effective at delivering the benefits of cannabinoids and marijuana without the added side effects and potential damage. One called dexanabinol is currently in drug trials for treating brain damage and inflammation in conditions like stroke and multiple sclerosis. It hasn’t been approved by the FDA yet, but it and other drugs are hopefully on their way to use.

John, a multiple sclerosis patient, found that cannabinoids (in the form of cannabis) effectively reduced some of his symptoms, allowing him to enjoy life a little longer. “Today I weigh 155 lbs. and use a wheelchair most of the time,” he says. “Cannabis has, no doubt, given me a better life than I would have had without it. I didn’t ask for this. I would gladly give up using cannabis and all the other drugs that are prescribed for me if I were miraculously cured.”

The potential cannabinoids have to improve suffering people’s lives spur researchers on to find a way to use them meaningfully.