Weed and Neurotransmitters: How Cannabis REALLY Influences the Brain

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Nicole Richter / Updated on February 26, 2018

Weed and Neurotransmitters: How Cannabis REALLY Works to Influence the Brain

No matter who you talk to, there’s certainly no shortage of misinformation out there with regard to cannabis; you’ve got bogus companies advertising completely useless products online (and in dispensaries), drug companies manipulating scientific data to promote their own products, and of course, the U.S. Federal Government themselves claiming that marijuana has “no currently accepted medical use.” It’s a proverbial “shit show” of inaccurate – and even downright wrong – information.

However, one of the more overlooked aspects of marijuana in terms of blatant misinformation is with regard to its chemical activity on the brain. For some reason or another, the media (and even some scientists) seem to think that weed promotes happiness and pleasure by acting in the same way that alcohol and cocaine does – that is, by overloading the brain’s central nervous system with neurotransmitters like dopamine.

The truth is, though, this is entirely inaccurate – and in this article we’ll explain why.

“Addiction-Causing” Drugs Promote Dopamine Activity

On the most basic level, people love drinking and doing drugs so much because it allows them, at least momentarily, to be happy and feel good.

On a more molecular level, this comes down to the activity of “pleasure molecules” called neurotransmitters – namely, dopamine. The symptoms of depression are basically characterized by low levels of dopamine; that is, people who have low dopamine activity generally experience low motivation, have an overwhelming sense of apathy, low self-confidence, the feeling that nothing matters, etc etc.

When these same people abuse dopamine-enhancing drugs, however (like alcohol and cocaine), the feelings of apathy and helplessness are replaced by feelings of confidence, pleasure, and reward-seeking behavior – this is precisely what makes alcohol, cocaine, and other similarly-acting drugs so addictive.

The fact that marijuana produces a similar type of “pleasure” sensation and feelings of reward and happiness, has led many to believe that it functions on the same level that alcohol and cocaine do – that is, by overwhelming the brain with dopamine activity.

This is downright false, and is actually the exact reason why alcohol is addictive and marijuana is not.

Studies Show That Anandamide – NOT Dopamine, is Likely Why Weed Makes us So Happy

In order to try and prove that marijuana acted on a different “path to happiness” than drugs like alcohol and cocaine, researchers in London performed a systematic review back in 2015 of over two dozen previous scientific publications that had explored the effects of cannabis use on dopamine activity.

Their findings? That there is “little direct evidence to suggest that cannabis use affects acute striatal dopamine release [in humans], or affects chronic dopamine receptor status in healthy human volunteers.”

That’s a pretty massive statement to be made by an organization as well-renowned and well-respected as the King’s College London. Basically what they said is that weed use, even though it produces “happiness” in most users that is similar to that of alcohol and cocaine, (just to use as an example), is not dependent on the addictive pathways of dopamine release.

So where does the “marijuana happiness” come from, then?

As it turns out, an endogenous (naturally occurring within the human body) network of neurotransmitters called anandamide can also work quite a wonder when it comes to “producing” happiness and pleasure – and the active molecules that are inside weed? They’re almost identical to anandamide.

In fact, thanks to the “Father of Modern Cannabis” Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, anandamide is what we know now to be as an endocannabinoid. For the unaffiliated, the human body is chock-full of endocannabinoids and their receptors. These are naturally-occuring transmitters that exist in all cell types in each and every one of us, regardless of whether or not we’ve smoked weed a day in our lives or not. Among other things, these endocannabinoids have been known to aid in improving memory, motivation, movement, pain, and appetite. Oh and also, you guessed it — anxiety and depression.

So when we smoke weed to feel good, we know that it’s actually a much “healthier” and natural way to promote pleasure and happiness (in relation to alcohol, cocaine, etc).

Also, the key here in all of this is that the active molecules in marijuana, namely THC and CBD, are nearly identical to the anandamide molecule (specifically THC… CBD has a relatively different physical structure).

In any regard, these molecules are what are called “phytocannabinoids” – nearly identical in form and function to the human body’s “endocannabinoids,” which have been referred to by NORML physician and advocate Dr. Dustin Sulak as “perhaps the most important physiologic system involved in establishing and maintaining human health.”

So, if you think it’s just a coincidence that marijuana contains active molecules that are almost exact copies of some of the most functionally active molecules in the human body, then, well, to be quite honest we feel sorry for you.

The meat of all this information, when it comes right down to it, is that the marijuana high – and the subsequent pleasure and happiness that we feel from it – is likely due to the plant’s influence on anandamide – not dopamine. This is crucial as it explains the virtually addictive-free nature of cannabis.

If you’re still feeling skeptical after all of this scientific talk about neurotransmitters and endocannabinoids, here’s a relevant excerpt from one of the most well-respected books of all time on cannabis, titled “Marijuana and Sex: A Classic Combination” (by Terry Necco):

“Just as our bodies contain pleasure systems which reward us for sex, our brains contain neurocellular circuitry which can only be activated by substances with THC’s molecular structure. This makes the marijuana high a unique constellation of feelings, and there are only two sources for the substances which activate THC’s very own neuroreceptor. Our brain is one source: it generates a neurochemical very similar to THC, called anandamide…The only other source for this bliss-producing substance is the cannabis plant.”

The Bottom Line: Why Does Weed Make us Happy?

When it comes to basically any aspect of marijuana, there’s likely plenty of misleading information out there. And like we said, in our opinion at least, the plant’s perceived effects on the human body and mind at the molecular level is probably one of the lesser talked about – but more important – bits of inaccuracy out there.

It’s crucial to understand that weed likely doesn’t have the same effects on dopamine activity that other, much more addictive drugs do. This is perfect, though, as it provides a wonderful sense of happiness and relief from the shackles of anxiety and depression, without the potential for dependence and abuse.

Sources:
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26068702
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17508987
https://www.leafly.com/news/cannabis-101/why-does-cannabis-make-you-feel-good
http://norml.org/library/item/introduction-to-the-endocannabinoid-system

Weed and Neurotransmitters: How Cannabis REALLY Influences the Brain
February 26, 2018
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