Researchers at the University of California Irvine have discovered how the so-called “love hormone” oxytocin boosts social interactions by making your brain release anandamide, the “bliss molecule.” Anandamide stimulates cannabinoid receptors like cannabis does, giving credence to the idea that the world would be a better, friendlier place if everyone smoked weed.
Daniele Piomelli’s lab at UCI started to measure anandamide production in the brains of rats and found that increased social contact meant more anandamide. This so-called “bliss molecule” is a neurotransmitter that naturally stimulates cannabinoid receptors. THC, CBD and other cannabinoids show some structural similarities to anandamide and also stimulate cannabinoid receptors. Stimulated by either endocannabinoids (produced from within the body) or phytocannabinoids (produced by cannabis), these receptors are responsible for the pain relieving effects of cannabis (and paracetamol) as well as a host of other medicinal benefits.
Now it appears that cannabinoid receptors are also responsible for the warm feeling of being near friends, family and lovers. The neurotransmitter oxytocin earned the clever terms “hug hormone,” “cuddle chemical” and “moral molecule” as researchers started to discover its effects on close contact, love and female reproduction. Since only a small group of neurons produce and use oxytocin, Piomelli’s team was able to make mouse brains produce oxytocin by electrically stimulating those neurons. The controlled increase in oxytocin boosted anandamide production; a sure sign the two must be connected.
Piomelli really hammered in the idea that the hug hormone works its magic using anandamide when his lab gave mice a drug to block cannabinoid receptors and stimulated oxytocin production. They observed that those mice didn’t benefit from the pro-social effects of oxytocin stimulation. Oxytocin still made their nucleus acumbens produce anandamide, but an antagonist was blocking their cannabinoid receptors.
These discoveries offer neuroscientists a lot insight into how our brains work on the molecular level, and they also open up possibilities for new drugs to treat social anxiety disorders. The enzyme FAAH quickly breaks down anandamide as it forms, and the same researchers have indicated that drugs geared at blocking these enzymes could be a better treatment method since they indirectly stimulate cannabinoid receptors without “psychoactive effects.” Could simple cannabis be an alternative to these complex substances for the treatment of anxiety disorders? People will have to see for themselves.
Photo credit: Keyton Kieffer