A marijuana like chemical produced naturally in the brain appears to help regulate body coordination and may hold hope for patients suffering from movement disorders like Parkinson's disease and schizophrenia.
Researchers at the University of California at Irvine announced that the brain's nerve cells use the chemical, called anandamide, to modify the effects of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is responsible for stimulating movement and other motor behavior. Scientists believe that excessive dopamine production causes some symptoms of schizophrenia and the sudden spasms associated with Tourette's syndrome, while a lack of dopamine induces the tremors and movement hesitation characteristic of Parkinson's disease.
"This [study] shows for the first time how anandamide works in the brain to produce normal motor activity," Daniele Piomelli, an associate professor of pharmacology at UCI, said.
"Patients with schizophrenia and other diseases have reported that marijuana appears to relieve some of their symptoms, but scientists have never found a physiological reason why. By understanding how the anandamide system works similarly to marijuana, we can explore new ways to treat these [type of] diseases more effectively."
Previous research on anandamide, which was first identified in 1992, indicated that it inhibited inflammation and extreme sensitivity to pain without carrying the risks associated with the use of opiates. Scientists dub the chemical an "indigenous cannabinoid" because it binds to the same brain receptors as do compounds in marijuana.
NORML board member Dr. Lester Grinspoon of Harvard Medical School called the UIC findings the "tip of the iceberg."
"Endogenous cannabinoids and their receptors will play a major role in the neurobiological understanding of the brain and, as a consequence, help us understand and treat a number of diseases," he said.
The findings of the UIC study appear in the April issue of the journal Nature Neuroscience.
For more information, please contact either Dr. Lester Grinspoon of Harvard Medical School @ (617) 277-3621 or Dr. John Morgan of the City University of New York (CUNY) Medical School @ (212) 650-8255.