U.S. researchers have long sought to explain the link between consumption of marijuana and the trigger in appetite – often referred to as “the munchies.”
The connection is significant not just for the potential spike in Twinkies sales, but because it’s this aspect of the drug that is often touted by those with certain serious illnesses and treatments resulting in major and potentially life-threatening weight loss.
Still, the munchies remained mostly a mystery of the drug – until now. Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine indicate they may have found – quite unexpectedly – the exact neurological responses behind the reaction.
Scientists had long speculated the reason cannabis triggered the appetite response had to do with a cluster of brain cells in the hypothalamus. That’s the area of the brain known for controlling our most primal instincts, such as alertness, sexual arousing and hunger. The grouping of neurons, called POMC neurons, tell the brain when the body is satiated. So when someone is full, these neurons send out a chemical that sends this message to the brain so that you stop eating.
In other studies, when researchers shut down those POMC neurons in studies involving mice, the rodents all became morbidly obese. So it was generally postulated that the compounds in marijuana affected this neuron grouping and made those signals slow down.
What was quite remarkable about the Yale study is that researchers found the exact opposite was happening. In fact, the drug appears to shut down cells adjacent to that neuron grouping. Those are the sells that tell the POMC neurons to slow down when a person is full. At the same time, the drug seems to be activating a receptor in the POMC neuron grouping, but instead of creating a chemical to indicate fullness, it is creating endorphins. Endorphins are a kind of neurotransmitter known to boost appetite.
This is an extremely novel concept: The idea that a neurotransmitter that is known for making one chemical and serving a singular purpose could be altered like a light switch is remarkable.
Of course, the study was conducted on mice, not humans, so we can’t know for sure yet if our own brains would react the same way. However, researchers noted the hypothalamus is considered a primal part of the brain, which evolved long before mammals, which means the function of ours and the function of mice is extremely similar – despite the vastly differing intelligence levels.
These kinds of studies are important because they help us better understand the benefits – and risks – of marijuana as medicine. The trouble is, with the drug remaining as a Schedule I narcotic under federal law, it’s tough to get approval to study the drug, especially on humans.
Still, this isn’t likely to be the last word on the matter. We know that marijuana affects other parts of the brain also, and we don’t know to what extent that may play a role, versus what researchers discovered here. For example, a study conducted last year indicated the drug had a strong effect on the brain’s olfactory sensors, making the mice being studied far more sensitive to smells. Researchers opined that could be an appetite trigger. So too could the release of dopamine the drug is known to cause.
Our marijuana lawyers know that when we have a better understanding of exactly how the drug affects people – and how it does not – a stronger case for more reasonable laws can be made.
The Los Angeles CANNABIS LAW Group represents growers, dispensaries, collectives, patients and those facing marijuana charges. Call us at 714-937-2050.
Marijuana munchies are all in the brain, U.S. study finds, Feb. 18, 2015, By Sharon Begley, Reuters
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Federal Judge Weighs in on Federal Marijuana Drug Classification, Jan. 28, 2015, Los Angeles Marijuana Lawyer Blog