Utilised and revered for its medicinal and psychoactive properties since the dawn of man, cannabis is the most popular prohibited recreational drug in the world, accounting for around 80 percent of the illegal drug market. The plant is made up of 545 chemical constituents, 104 of which are cannabinoids, meaning they interact with the body’s endocannabinoid system. The most famous of these is Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which binds to CB1 receptors in the brain in order to produce a range of psychoactive effects. Another cannabinoid called cannabidiol (CBD) has also gained much attention in recent years, and has been identified as a major target for cannabis-based medicines.
While CB1 receptors are found primarily in the brain, another key endocannabinoid receptor, called CB2, is mostly located in the immune system and is acted upon by a number of different cannabinoids. A neurotransmitter called anandamide normally binds to CB1 receptors, but does not produce any psychoactive effects as it is released from its binding site relatively quickly. THC, however, remains in place for a long enough period of time to produce a “high”.
Cannabis also contains hundreds of other non-cannabinoid components, such as terpenes and flavonoids. The complex synergy between all of these constituents is thought to be responsible for the plant’s medicinal properties, which is why it is important to carry out research on how different strains affect the brain and body in order to develop specialised cannabis-based treatments for specific conditions.
The Beckley/Exeter Cannabis Centre at the University of Exeter is currently investigating the potential of CBD to facilitate smoking cessation, and will soon begin analysing the cannabinoid, terpene and flavonoid content of different strains of cannabis in order to produce new medications that are optimised for specific health conditions. At University College London, meanwhile, we are currently using brain-imaging technology to compare the effects of two different cannabis strains, one of which has a high THC and low CBD content, while the other is high CBD and low THC. Previous research carried out at King’s College London revealed the anti-anxiety and anti-psychotic properties of CBD.
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