Researchers may be closing in on exactly why cannabis is so good at countering anxiety.
A new study, published in the journal Neuron, explains that there is an anxiety generating superhighway in the brain that connects the amygdala, the brain’s emotional centre, with the prefrontal cortex, where decision making and impulse control are managed.
The more stressful the situation a person finds themselves in, the more firmly these two areas of the brain connect, quickly elevating anxiety.
“The circuit between the amygdala and the frontal cortex has been shown to be stronger in individuals with certain types of anxiety disorders,” Sachin Patel, study co-author and Vanderbilt University researcher, told Inverse. “As people or animals are exposed to stress and get more anxious, these two brain areas glue together, and their activity grows stronger together,” Patel explained.
As levels of acute stress were increased, the brain’s anxiety pathway grew stronger. / Photo: wildpixel / iStock / Getty Images Plus wildpixel / iStock / Getty Images Plus
But researchers have discovered that a molecule produced by the brain called 2-AG can disrupt the flow of neurochemicals along the superhighway and decrease the resulting anxiety. It does this by activating endocannabinoid receptors in the brain, the same ones that respond to the presence of cannabis.
Experiments on mice backed up their hypotheses and revealed that as levels of acute stress were increased, the brain’s anxiety pathway grew stronger.
“As people or animals are exposed to stress and get more anxious, these two brain areas glue together, and their activity grows stronger together.” / Photo: AntonioGuillem / iStock / Getty Images Plus AntonioGuillem / iStock / Getty Images Plus
Patel and his team are hopeful their work will lead to new medication that can replicate 2-AG and slow the neurochemical traffic on the superhighway before it gets out of control. But he emphasized that more research is needed to build on their work.
“We still do not know how enhancing 2-AG levels will affect humans with stress-related disorders such as PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), and whether 2-AG signalling is compromised in patients with PTSD or other anxiety disorders,” he added.