Researchers have made a major breakthrough in cannabis research. A study recently published in Cell details the exact structure of the cannabinoid 1 (CB1) receptor, the binding location for THC. This discovery has enormous potential for both medical cannabis research and future drug development. Here’s the scoop on the structure of the cell receptor responsible for the cannabis high. 

A blueprint for the endocannabinoid system

Cell Receptor 1 Want To Know Why Youre High? Science Can Tell You
Photo credit

Cannabis has an effect on the body because it directly engages receptors on the surface of cells. The CB1 receptor is the primary binding site for psychoactive THC. It is also part of a much larger endocannabinoid system (ECS).

The ECS is a large regulatory network in the body, and it plays a role in a wide variety of functions. These include mood, appetite, pain, immune function, movement, and sleep.

The recent discovery marks a huge advancement in endocannabinoid research. Cannabinoid receptors were only discovered in the late 1980s. In the time since, cannabis and the endocannabinoid system have only continued to amaze scientific communities and the public alike.

Now, researchers have unearthed that the receptor that provides the THC high is a three-dimensional, crystal shape. This has major implications for cannabis research and future drug development.

Dr. Mark Ware thinks this finding is a breakthrough. He is the executive director of the Canadian Consortium for the Investigation of Cannabinoids and the director of clinical research at the Alan Edwards pain management unit at the McGill University Health Centre.

Ware explains the significance of the new research,

Suddenly we’ve been given the design of the building. We can work out ways to get in the building, we know where the windows and doors and stairs are, and we know kind of how the building is structured now.

Research implications

Cell Receptor 2 Want To Know Why Youre High? Science Can Tell You
Photo credit

Knowing more about the overall structure of the CB1 receptor may help scientists learn more about how psychoactive THC works. The CB1 receptor can be found throughout the body, but it is most abundant in the central nervous system. This is why cannabis can be mind-altering.

Yet, there’s something interesting about cannabis. THC has demonstrated a wealth of therapeutic effects, but it has a high margin of safety and no known fatal dose. Synthetic cannabinoids, on the other hand, have caused death and have a large number of harmful side effects.

This is odd as synthetic cannabinoids are designed to mimic compounds found in the real plant. Understanding the precise shape of the CB1 receptor can help researchers figure out why THC is relatively safe when synthetic cannabinoid compounds are not.

Studying THC

Cell Receptor 3 Want To Know Why Youre High? Science Can Tell You
Photo credit

Thus far, many of the reported benefits of medical cannabis have come from anecdotal evidence. The plant seems to help nearly everything, from multiple sclerosis to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Apart from legal barriers to research, Ware explains why studying the plant has been so difficult,

It’s such a wide range of different conditions that it’s not been possible to keep up on doing clinical studies on all the different conditions for which patients report cannabis being helpful.

That’s not to say it doesn’t necessarily work, but we don’t have, and haven’t had, the investment of time and money to do the studies required to get a better feel as to what’s happening with those kinds of clinical experiences.

Ware hopes, as do many other researchers, that the discovery of the structure of the CB1 receptor will shed light into the black boxes in cannabinoid research.