Brain and Body

Neuroscientists Discover Previously Unknown Function of 'Marijuana Receptor'

May 3, 2016 | Johannes Van Zijl

Rat brain culture, neurons coloured red, microglia in green
Photo credit: Gerry Shaw (CC BY 3.0). Rat brain culture, neurons coloured red, microglia in green

The study could improve our understanding of brain diseases, including schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s.  

Neuroscientists from the German Centre for Neurodegenerative Diseases (DZNE) and Charité – Medical University in Berlin have identified a previously unknown role of the cannabinoid type 2 receptor (CB2) in the brain.

The CB2 receptor forms part of the endocannabinoid system (ECS), a family of receptors and signalling substances that exists in many animals, including humans. The ECS also includes the CB1 receptor, which is influenced by the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).  

The CB2 receptor is already known to play an important role in the immune system of animals, where its function is to receive chemical signals which in turn control specific cellular activity. Also, a recent study published in the FASEB journal suggests that the CB2 receptor plays a major role in sperm production in men, which could be a target for forthcoming fertility treatments.

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Now, the latest findings suggests the CB2 receptor also influences the way the brain processes information inside the hippocampus, a brain region that plays an important role in emotional control and in the generation of long-term memories.

"Until now, this receptor was considered part of the immune system without function in nerve cells. However, our study shows that it also plays an important role in the signal processing of the brain," Dietmar Schmitz, Speaker for the DZNE-Site Berlin and coordinator of the study, explained in a press release.

The researchers concluded their findings using the animal model, where they demonstrated the CB2 receptor raised the excitation of nerve cells in the hippocampus region of the brain.

"Operation of the brain critically depends on the fact that nerve impulses sometimes have an exciting impact on downstream cells and in other cases they have a suppressing effect," said Vanessa Stempel, lead author of the current publication, in the release. "The CB2 receptor works like a set screw by which such communication processes can be adjusted."

This latest study provides new insights into the mechanisms contributing to brain diseases, which could be a starting point in the development of novel medications and treatments.

"Brain activity is disturbed in schizophrenia, depression, Alzheimer's disease and other neuropsychiatric disorders. Pharmaceuticals that bind to the CB2 receptor could possibly influence the activity of brain cells and thus become part of a therapy," Schmitz concludes in the press release.

The findings were published in the journal Neuron.

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