Add marijuana to humans, and you get some fairly predictable results: euphoria, hunger, introspection, anxiety, and a whole panoply of other effects. Also known as being high. Most of that complicated reaction is thanks to a single cellular structure known as cannabinoid receptor 1. Your body has CB1 receptors lacing the surfaces of cells in the brain, liver, lungs, fat, uterus, and sperm. And whenever your … friendsmokes, dabs, or eats an edible, the tetrahydrocannabinol molecules therein bind to these sites, stimulating the cells to release a cornucopia of chemical signals.
For a long time, scientists thought CB1 receptors worked like lock and key with THC and its chemical cousins—one size fits one. However, new research shows that CB1 receptors are actually quite malleable, stretching to fit a wider range of molecules. That could be useful knowledge as researchers try to synthesize chemicals that mimic the desirable effects of cannabis (such as pain relief) without the side effects (such as anxiety, weight gain, addiction, or federal prosecution).
“People have been using cannabis for a variety of therapeutic indications for centuries,” says Alexandros Makriyannis, director of Northeastern University’s Center for Drug Discovery, and a co-author of this new research, published in Nature. In the 1960s, scientists finally started to figure that out as well. And by the 1980s, Eli Lilly had developed a synthetic THC knockoff called Nabilone. “It was a good quality drug used for nausea from chemotherapy, and also pain,” says Makriyannis. But other THC-based synthetics never took off, in part because pharmacologists couldn’t eliminate all the unwanted side effects.