What do you think of when someone says ‘cannabis’? Class B drug? Illegal? High? Maybe medicinal? Over the years, cannabis has had a great deal of bad press, it is often negatively associated with teenagers, festival goers and drug dealers. But is it all it’s cracked up to be?
Research by the world health organisation (WHO) showed that a whopping 147 million people use cannabis globally-mainly for recreational reasons. The part that ‘makes you high’ is caused by a substance known as THC (tetrahydrocannabidoil- for all you nerds), which has many well-known ‘positive’ effects such as: the feeling of euphoria, extreme relaxation, hallucinations as well as ‘negative’ side effects such as anxiety, panic, paranoia and decreased learning ability. People often mix cannabis with tobacco and smoke the herb, whilst it can also be ingested in food, often referred to as ‘space cakes’. Long term use of the drug has been linked to schizophrenia, isolation, addiction as well as the many health risks associated with smoking.
There are a number of important substances produced by the cannabis plant that don’t make you ‘high’, in fact these compounds have shown many positive effects as potential treatments for different diseases. The plant itself produces over 66 unique compounds, which are mainly produced in the base of the flowers and the leaves of the herb, in structures known as trichromes (hair like projections). CBD (cannabidiol) is one of the chemicals produced (which doesn’t have a psychoactive effects) and has shown great promise in treating numerous conditions. In fact, a drug known as Sativex (GW pharmaceuticals) which contains CBD, is already on the market to successfully treat childhood epilepsy and symptoms exhibited by multiple sclerosis (MS) patients. It is the first legal drug containing cannabis in the UK, however currently it is only used to treat MS symptoms such as spasticity, pain, bladder problems, sleep disturbance and tremor. Additionally, in the United States, there are approximately 24 states and at least 11 countries in Europe that enable controlled patient access to cannabis for medicinal use. There is still a long way to go and there are no immediate plans to make the drug legal in the UK, but many scientists argue that a regulated method of prescribing cannabis may be extremely beneficial to a number of people.
So, it’s not all about getting ‘high’ and getting hooked- cannabis actually has a number of medical properties that are both useful and successful. Currently, research is being carried out in several scientific groups to test substances extracted from the cannabis plant as a treatment for stroke patients, MS, Parkinson’s disease, chronic pain and even cancer. For example, a 2015 study looking at the treatment of pain in patients with advanced cancer (metastatic cancer which has spread from site of origin to other parts of the body) showed that patients taking cannabis reported a 50-70% improvement in pain, well-being, appetite and nausea, with minimal side effects.
Likewise, a 2016 study assessed the effect of cannabis on movement and pain in Parkinson’s disease and showed the potential of the drug to improve motor function (control of movement) and to decrease pain.
More specifically, my group at the University of Nottingham led by Saoirse O’Sullivan is carrying out some new exciting work surrounding cannabis and neuroprotection in stroke. Stroke is a condition where a blockage or bleed in the brain stops the flow of blood and oxygen, which often causes brain injury. It affects millions of people worldwide and is the second biggest killer, with a prevalence that is only increasing because of our aging population. Therefore, we need new treatments, and fast! The NHS is already under extreme pressure and stroke patients often require long term care, which can be costly and hard on families.
Our group has been looking at specialist brain cells that make up what is known as the blood brain barrier; a physical barrier that separates brain tissue from the blood. During stroke this barrier can become compromised, causing nasty or unwanted stuff to move from the blood into the brain in an uncontrolled manner. This can altogether increase brain injury and increases the likelihood of a poor recovery. We are looking at the potential of some non-psychoactive (the ones that don’t make you ‘high’) substances found in cannabis, to see if they can protect this barrier and prevent its damage. These substances, if proved successful, could then be given as drugs to those who have suffered or are likely to suffer from stroke, improving patient outcomes.
Nicole Stone is a PhD student at Nottingham University. She has an extreme Yorskshire tea fetish, loves science, and is a bit of a cat lady.