18 Mar Brain Chemical May Play Role in Treatment of Cannabis Addiction
Significant numbers of both casual and regular users of marijuana and other forms of cannabis will eventually develop an addiction to THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the primary active ingredient in this plant-based drug. In a study published in January 2014 in the journal Science, a multinational research team investigated the ability of a naturally occurring hormone called pregnenolone to block some of THC’s most prominent, addiction-supporting effects. The members of this team concluded that, while pregnenolone itself is not suitable as a treatment for cannabis addiction, understanding of the impact this hormone has on THC opens up new avenues for addiction treatment in the future.
Like a wide variety of other substances, cannabis produces a risk for abuse and addiction by changing the balance of chemicals normally found in the brain’s pleasure center and triggering feelings of euphoria. Users of this drug typically get into trouble when they attempt to access this euphoric feeling repeatedly over time and unwittingly prime their brains to expect more and more THC, the chemical mostly responsible for cannabis’ mind-altering effects. Roughly 9 percent of casual and daily marijuana users of all ages will ultimately develop diagnosable symptoms of cannabis addiction. When viewed separately, teenage casual and daily marijuana users have a heightened addiction rate of approximately 17 percent. When considered apart from casual users, teen and adult daily users of the drug have addiction rates that range from 25 percent to 50 percent.
The human body naturally makes modest amounts of pregnenolone. In turn, this steroid hormone acts as the main building material for a number of other critically important hormones inside the body, including estrogen and other male and female sex hormones, corticosteroids and DHEA. Supplemental forms of pregnenolone have been available in the U.S. for decades. Purported uses for supplements containing this hormone include memory improvement, stress reduction, depression relief, appetite reduction and relief of the symptoms of osteoporosis and arthritis. The clearest potential benefit of the hormone is for memory improvement; however, no firm scientific evidence supports the usefulness of pregnenolone in any previously considered context. Forms of pregnenolone for sale in the U.S. include capsules, tablets and creams.
In order to produce its drug effects, THC must gain access to the brain through sites called CB1 receptors. In the study published in Science, researchers from France, Spain, the U.S., Great Britain and Canada examined the potential of pregnenolone to block THC’s access to these receptors, and thereby interfere with the process of THC/cannabis intoxication. The researchers decided to explore this line of investigation, in part, because a previous laboratory study of rats had shown that the brain’s natural pregnenolone levels increase dramatically when THC is present. The current study also involved rats, as well as mice. These animals received small doses of pregnenolone after being exposed to THC in a laboratory setting.
In a preliminary finding, the researchers concluded that the natural rise in pregnenolone levels after THC exposure functions as a protective mechanism to reduce the impact of THC-related intoxication. After analyzing the impact of supplemental doses of pregnenolone, they concluded that the animals that received these doses had a clearly reduced response to the effects of THC. Specific signs of this reduced response included a decrease in the memory dysfunction associated with cannabis/marijuana use, a lowered level of cannabis/marijuana-induced sleepiness and, critically, a decrease in the desire to use more cannabis/marijuana. In addition to the work conducted with rats and mice, the researchers used cell cultures from humans to verify that pregnenolone can achieve the same effects by blocking THC’s access to human CB1 receptors.
Significance and Considerations
Despite the obvious beneficial impact of pregnenolone on some of the most harmful, addiction-supporting aspects of THC intoxication, the authors of the study published in Science concluded that the hormone has no direct usefulness as a cannabis addiction treatment. This is true because the human body absorbs supplemental doses of pregnenolone poorly, and also tends to convert any pregnenolone it does absorb into other types of hormones. Still, the authors believe that their work with the hormone demonstrates a previously unconsidered pathway for cannabis addiction treatment. In line with this belief, they have developed several more easily absorbable and usable pregnenolone-based substances that may one day form the basis for a new group of widely available, real-world treatment options. No one should take supplemental pregnenolone without advice and consent from his or her physician.
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