Op-Ed: New research — Cannabis receptor in brain protects against aging?

Posted Jul 14, 2011 by Paul Wallis
In a truly beautiful twist of culture vs. science which few people could have envisioned, German researchers have discovered that turning off a receptor related to cannabinoids causes mouse brains to age. There’s a similar receptor in humans.
The researchers at the Universities of Bonn and Mainz have found a “mechanism” whereby turning off this receptor, known as the cannabinoid-1 receptor, resulted in symptoms similar to dementia in humans. This is a new discovery, and a previously unknown function of the receptor. The receptor is also the reason for the intoxicating effect of cannabis and hash, both of which involve a compound called THC (tetrohydrocannabinol) a complex cannabinoid.
Apparently the mouse brains with the receptor turned off aged “rapidly”. The current theory is that it plays a role in protecting the nerves. The mice with the receptor turned off showed diminished learning and memory and these symptoms progressed as they aged.
The significance of the mouse experiment is that our furry distant relatives is interesting, to put it mildly, as Science Daily explains:
The processes in the mouse brains have a surprising number of parallels with age-related changes in human brains. So, the endocannabinoid system may also present a protective mechanism in the aging of the human brain.
This could be a major breakthrough in dealing with the massive increase in dementia in humans, if the science holds good for humans. Increased life spans have been showing a range of emerging medical issues of which dementia, which is a slightly vague term for a range of neural and brain issues, is the best known and most widespread.
Which raises another issue: Why is there a cannabinoid receptor at all? Is there a natural analogue in body chemistry, as there is with endorphins, which are closely similar to opiates? The scientists refer to an “addictive potential” in the cannabinoid receptor, which sounds as if there is some sort of relationship.
This research is an awfully long way from saying “grass is good for you”, but it also raises the question whether there’s some unknown factor in cannabinoids which needs to be investigated for its neural protection properties. Have people been smoking something that might have better uses? If this question ever boils down to a choice between health and aging, I’d say the boot is now on the other foot in terms of health options.
(It also raises the question of why mice have receptors for cannabinoids, but I thought I'd leave out any speculation about what the mice have been smoking.)