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1:1, Conversations with Leading Cannabinoid Researchers

Today we’re introducing a new feature of the Cornerstone blog – “1:1” featuring interviews from top scientists and engineers on the leading edge of cannabinoid and endocannabinoid research. This feature is intended to allow readers to hear directly from the sources of information that we pull our blog posts from. We believe that doing so will not only help you have a better sense of how research is conducted, but even more importantly, will remove as much bias as possible from our end and leave you with the cold, hard facts.

After visiting the 2015 International Cannabinoid Research Society Conference, we were impressed with the number of hard-working individuals exploring innovative uses of the endocannabinoid system. One of these individuals was Harriet de Wit, from the University of Chicago, who, along with research teammates Joseph Lutz and Emma Childs, prepared a review for the conference entitled “Does Delta-9 Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) Dampen Responses to Social Stress?”. Harriet holds a doctoral degree in Experimental Psychology and has an extensive background in behavioral science. As a powerhouse of research, she has directed and contributed to studies ranging from the effects of illicit drugs to the connection between exercise and sweet consumption on human behavior and perception. De Wit’s THC research represents one interest out of many others surrounding the complexity of human drug use.

Cornerstone (CRC): As a researcher coming from the psych end of the spectrum, you have an advantage in understanding the human condition better than researchers with purely biomolecular backgrounds. How has this impacted your research, and what do you feel psychologists add to the field in general? What sort of cooperation needs to happen between psychologists and chemical engineers to crack the workings of the endocannabinoid system?

Harriet de Wit: My background is mainly as a behavioral scientist. As such, I believe there is a need for well-controlled studies, that use standardized measures to assess specific domains of behavior. By harmonizing the measures used in human studies and more biologically based studies in laboratory animal models, we can extend our understanding of human drug use. In the studies with humans we need to define the participants precisely (e.g., documenting their history of drug use, the psychiatric and medical histories). Further, and perhaps most importantly, we need to have precise control over the products or drugs we are administering, so that the findings are replicable by others, and so that we can work toward identifying the active agents.

CRC : You have an extensive background of studying substance abuse – Many have argued that cannabis is the most widely abused substance. In light of your research into social stress, how has your professional opinion of the pharmaceutical utility of THC changed over the years? Do you feel that medication with THC can lead to substance abuse, and if so, how does this risk compare to the risk of other pharmaceuticals?

De Wit: These are all good questions, and they are answerable with careful, systematic controlled studies.  With regard to the first, it is likely that cannabis is the most widely used illicit drug, although use of legal drugs (caffeine, alcohol) is more prevalent. We do not know yet whether cannabis is effective in reducing stress, because we have not conducted the relevant controlled studies, with carefully defined participants, double blind administration of the drug, well-defined constituents of the drug, and standardized outcome measures. We know that a small proportion of users do develop problems with excessive use. Therefore, if the drug is used by a great number of additional individuals, it is likely that more people will be exposed to this risk, and develop problems. Whether they are different from other pharmaceutical agents remains to be seen.

CRC : How easy is it for you to conduct THC research in comparison to other research you’ve done? Are there additional challenges to approval of your studies or is it fairly straight-forward? One of the classic narratives explaining the relative lack of research on the endocannabinoid system is that the research was historically subject to additional hassle and stigma, and therefore many researchers chose to pursue other less legally-complicated fields. What is the situation like in 2015? Is that still accurate?

De Wit: There are indeed substantial regulations in place regarding scientific studies with cannabis. Easing these regulations, in a thoughtful and measured way, will likely help scientists to conduct the research that needs to be done.

CRC : Where do you predict the field of endocannabinoid research will head in the next 15 years? What types of research will likely draw more support and focus?

De Wit: I think there is potential for confirming (or refuting) the claims that are currently made, about the potential efficacy of the whole plant or its individual constituents, including their effects as an antiemetic, analgesic, appetite enhancer, and perhaps anxiolytic. I believe significant progress will be made in the specific cannabinoid constituents that contribute to these effects. Another major direction of research will be to understand the basic role of the endocannabinoid system, its function, the various receptor subtypes, and the circuits that control behavior and physiology.


CRC’s notes for readers:

“Potential efficacy of the whole plant” refers to the current theory that the whole plant may have synergistic effects greater than any individual chemical – de Wit suggests that confirming or denying this theory will be an area of research interest.