Dr. Esther Shohami is one of the world’s foremost cannabinoid researchers. Her research is focused on the effects of traumatic brain injury (TBI) on cognitive functions, and the involvement of the endocannabinoid system in rehabilitation after TBI. She is also involved in developing new cannabinoid-like drugs to treat TBI. Dr. Shohami is a neuropharmacologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Ramona Rubin of Doc Green’s Healing Collective had the opportunity to catch up with Dr. Shohami at the recent Patients Out of Time conference in Berkeley, California.
HT: Welcome to Berkeley. I understand this is not your first visit to California?
ES: I spent a summer here in Berkeley with a colleague at the UC in 2003. It’s wonderful weather, wonderful location, I am enjoying the sun and the company. Patients Out Of Time is a very interesting meeting with a blend of people that I don’t usually see represented at scientific meetings.
You’re here sharing your research on traumatic brain injury. How did you come to discover the role of the endocannabinoid system in protecting and healing the brain after injury?
I work upstairs in the same building as the lab of Professor Raphael Mechoulam. After he identified THC in the cannabis plant, he went on to identify anandamide and 2-AG, endogenous cannabinoids present in body tissues. He encouraged me for many years to look at the role of the endocannabinoids in my experimental model of traumatic brain injury. When I did, I found that endocannabinoids play a beneficial role in the brain’s healing and recovery process, protecting the brain from secondary damage. And not just one effect, but acting on many systems and targets for healing. They affect the blood-brain barrier, mediate the response to high levels of glutamate, are neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory.
You’ve been researching and publishing for many years. Are you still discovering things that surprise you?
The cannabinoid system is a very new field, so nearly whatever you do here results in a novel finding. When we started working on 2-AG in the mouse brain, we had no idea what was happening. Chapter by chapter, our knowledge evolved, and we came up with a very nice story about the role of the endocannabinoid system as a neuroprotective system in the body. This is something 20 years ago nobody thought of, so this is really exciting. When you have good students that are dedicated and really work on it, it’s the teamwork, and we all share the enthusiasm. Sometimes we look at the results and say “Wow, this is exactly what we anticipated”, and if it’s not what we anticipated, we have to think about what happened and revise our thoughts.
To do science well you have to be alert and follow literature and communicate with others. You cannot be a loner in the scientific life. You have to work with other scientists, you have to collaborate, you have to be open. This is my philosophy, I know that not every lab is like this, but my students always share and help each other.
Cannabinoid research and medicine faces stigmas and regulatory challenges around the world. What has your experience been?
For my research in Israel we need a special license to work with some of these novel cannabinoid compounds. Luckily, I work with Dr. Mechoulam, and he has an open permit. So I never applied to the Ministry—he synthesizes them in the lab, and I can get them from him.
From what I hear, in this country it’s very frustrating. How do you get data to tell if it’s good or bad, and how it should be used with patients, if you don’t have access to the material to do the research? This is very wrong, and I hope you get it sorted out here. To do good research you must have access to the compounds. No doubt.
I take it you’re referring to the biochemically inferior National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) marijuana that is the only legally available cannabis plant material for researchers in the United States?
Yes. And access in general.
What is your advice for lawmakers?
Regulators should be aware that compared to opiates, this is a much more benign family of compounds. It’s very potent. It’s involved in health and disease in every organ. The body tries to tell us something. Look at the body, look at the distribution of the receptors, look at the organs where you find the receptors of this system. You cannot ignore it. You cannot just behave as if it’s not there. Be more educated about what this system is about and realize that it should be prioritized in research and for translation to medical use.
You visited a medical cannabis dispensary here in California, where we just legalized recreational use. What are your impressions of our medical access?
The trip to the dispensary was a bit disappointing. I found the place quite efficient, but not very friendly and inviting, with a somewhat cold atmosphere. As an outsider I didn’t feel this place was very welcoming—yet I’m sure that those that visit on a regular basis find whatever they need, not only for treatment, but also as a social meeting place.
You know, we have known for many many years there is no drug that has no side effects. Every drug or substance has the good and the bad, and it’s all in the balance between the two. Recreational use is a very personal choice, and everyone should decide for themselves if they want to drink alcohol, or smoke cannabis, or gamble. But for older people, for whom small doses can be very helpful, if it will help them, they shouldn’t be afraid of getting it.
Anything else you care to share?
The smoke here in the air! The first time I really realized what it is to smell the smoke was when I was here in Berkeley. My colleague and I were walking down the street and I asked her “What is this smell?” She said “You don’t know? That’s the smell of smoking marijuana. You’re in Berkeley.” That’s how I first got to know the smell.