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What is the endocannabinoid system (ECS)?

Many of us have heard about some of our bodies' transmitter systems, such as the sympathetic nervous system, which controls our fight-or-flight response. Fewer people are familiar with the more recently discovered endocannabinoid system (ECS), which is remarkable given that the ECS is essential for nearly every element of our day-to-day functioning. The endocannabinoid system regulates and controls many of the critical body functions which include memory, emotional processing, temperature control, inflammatory control, immune responses, eating, learning, pain control and even sleep. The ECS is at the forefront of innovative worldwide research and medication development. The endocannabinoid system is currently at the centre of renewed international research and drug development.

 
What is the endocannabinoid system (ECS)?

The ECS comprises a vast network of chemical signals and cellular receptors that are densely packed throughout our brains and bodies. The brain's "cannabinoid" receptors – the CB1 receptors - outnumber several other receptors in the brain. They function similarly to traffic cops, regulating the amounts and activity of most of the other neurotransmitters. They regulate things by increasing or decreasing the activity of the system that requires adjustment, immediate feedback, hunger response, alertness or temperature.

Our bodies generate chemicals called endocannabinoids that stimulate these receptors which have a structural similarity to the molecules found in the cannabis plant also known as hemp. The very first endocannabinoid that was discovered was called Anandamide which is named after the Sanskrit word ananda for bliss. Anandamide is a lipid mediator that acts as an endogenous ligand of CB1 receptors. These receptors are also the primary molecular target that is responsible for the pharmacological effects of Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol. The psychoactive ingredient in Cannabis sativa is Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol. Each of us has tiny cannabis-like molecules floating around in our brains. Humans have been using cannabis for almost 5,000 years, and it effectively works by hijacking this ancient cellular machinery.

The second type of cannabinoid receptor, the CB2 receptor, exists mostly in our immune tissues and is critical to helping our immune functions and control and it plays a role in modulating contraction, intestinal inflammation and pain in inflammatory intestinal bowel conditions. CB2 receptors are particular targets of drug development because they don’t cause the high (stoned) associated with cannabis that stimulating the CB1 receptors does.

The ECS's role in memory and learning


The endocannabinoid system plays an important role in learning and memory due to several lines of research. The most evident observation is that one of the most common side effects of high doses of recreational cannabis usage is the temporary disruption of short-term memory. With abstinence, the memory returns to normal. Some sophisticated studies of how humans acutely respond to Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) the active component in cannabis and how this alters our body's ability to memorize things in the short term and patterns observed on functional brain imaging.



Cannabis is one of the plants that people have grown or co-evolved with for thousands of years, according to famous author Michael Pollan in his best-selling book The Botany of Desire. He also stated that because the act of forgetting plays a valuable role in the ability of our brains to function without being overloaded with data from our senses that we are continuously overloaded with. Pollan hypothesizes that if we did not forget, we would be unable to function, and cannabis enables us to do so. The role of the ECS in forgetting also offers up opportunities for treating PTSD, a condition in which there are undesirable, intrusive memories that can not be forgotten by people and that causes a syndrome of dangerous and troublesome symptoms associated with pathological remembering.



The ECS's role in hunger and weight-loss drug fine-tuning.

The cautionary tale of the drug rimonabant, which inhibits the CB1 receptor, provides an interesting illustration of the ECS's essential position in a variety of critical activities. It was developed as an anti-obesity medication (drug). The reasoning was that the ECS regulates hunger. We know this because, among other things, cannabis causes "the munchies," and so blocking the CB1 receptor should result in weight loss. Rimonabant did, in fact, induce significant weight loss. However, because the ECS also regulates mood, it had to be withdrawn from the market on an emergency basis due to a rise in suicidal behaviour among those taking it. However, if we get a greater understanding of the ECS's complexity, we may be able to develop a weight-loss drug that works on the cannabinoid receptors that impact weight loss but does not act on the receptors that are associated with mood.

Exploration of the ECS may result in the discovery of new drugs.

The ECS was first studied and an attempt to understand and demonize an illegal drug, but new research has evolved into a far more broad exploration and far-reaching system by which our bodies feel, learn, motivate and balance. We are certainly at the start of an era of ECS discovery and drug development that may help alleviate some of the cruellest diseases that people and animals suffer from.

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