A Complex Plant
The more we investigate the chemical makeup of cannabis, the more astonished scientists become. So far, over 100 cannabinoids have been identified. These are biochemicals specific to cannabis. Many exist at such low levels, they’re hard for scientists to detect. We’re only just beginning to learn how cannabinoids interact with the human body, particularly these lesser known ones. What’s more, other phytochemicals (plant-based compounds), such as terpenes and flavonoids, play their own role.
Difficulty studying the plant, due to federal illegality, has stymied efforts to understand the complex chemical makeup of cannabis and how it affects human health. So far, there are good indications that cannabidiol (CBD), a non-psychoactive cannabinoid, is helpful for certain intractable, childhood epileptic conditions. It might also help ease pain, increase focus, and decrease anxiety. The most heavily studied cannabinoid has been delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). This is the psychoactive component that induces a euphoria or high.
THC itself has medical uses, such as relieving pain, dizziness, and nausea. In fact, synthetic THC medications are currently prescribed to some cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, in order to help control nausea and stimulate their appetite. THC is also thought to have anti-inflammatory effects. Unfortunately, drug war propaganda has tainted the consciousness of generations against THC. Now, researchers at the University of Bern, Switzerland, may have found a loophole, a moss that produces a THC-like substance that isn’t illegal and hasn’t been maligned.
This Moss is Boss
The phytochemical the moss contains is called perrottetinene (PET). It was first discovered by Japanese phytochemist Yoshinori Asakawa in 1994. A type of moss called liverwort (Radula perrottetii) produces PET. The compound acts a lot like THC. THC and PET differ slightly in structure–on the molecular level. PET also has an additional benzyl group.
This discovery was nearly lost to science. Just recently, Jürg Gertsch at the University of Bern, Switzerland, rediscovered it, after seeing advertisements on the internet claiming the moss was a source for a legal high. Yet, little was known about the pharmacological effects, until now. Gertsch hooked up with a team of chemists at his university, led by Erick Carreira. They worked to compare the effects of THC and PET on the mammalian brain.
PET was able to enter the brains of mice and interact with cannabinoid receptors there, in much the same way THC does. The anti-inflammatory properties scientists observed were of particular interest. PET reduced inflammation in mice brains better than THC, in this experiment. Why liverwort, a plant that leads a different life from cannabis and reproduces differently, produces a similar phytochemical, is still a mystery.
How do THC and PET Measure up?
First, individual neural cells were tested. Then, each compound was introduced to mice. Both PET and THC slowed subjects’ movements and caused their body temperatures to drop. However, PET proved to be less psychoactive, while instigating a similar–if not more robust–anti-inflammatory response. Another difference, PET was better at suppressing prostaglandins than THC. Prostaglandins are molecules associated with inflammation. What’s more, researchers witnessed no negative effects of PET consumption.
There may be some limitations. First, this was only performed in mouse models. The lion’s share of such drugs effective in mice end up in the dustbin of medical history. More studies will have to be done. Still, these results are encouraging. Even if PET can take the place of THC in clinical settings, the moss may prove difficult to cultivate. It reproduces without seeds and only grows in Japan, New Zealand, and Costa Rica.
The next phase will be testing the compound in animals with inflammatory conditions to see if PET helps. It’ll take years before we know if PET will replace THC in the clinical space. CBD and other cannabinoids, however, show enough promise to see medical cannabis continue to make strides. Surely, PET won’t replace medical cannabis outright, but it may supplant THC in a clinical setting.
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To learn exactly how THC works in the brain, click here: