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Your body’s own cannabinoid molecules calm you during stress

Scientists discover how stress activates the same receptors as THC

When you are under stress, your brain may release its own cannabinoid molecules to calm you down, activating the same brain receptors as THC derived from cannabis plants.

But the brain activity patterns and neural circuits that are regulated by these brain-derived cannabinoid molecules were not well known.

A new Northwestern Medicine study in mice has discovered that a key emotional brain center, the amygdala, releases endogenous (the body’s own) cannabinoid molecules under stress, and these molecules dampen the incoming stress alarm from the hippocampus, a memory and emotion center in the brain. These results provide more support for the hypothesis that these endogenous cannabinoid molecules are a body’s natural coping response to stress.

Stress exposure heightens risk for the development or worsening of psychiatric disorders from generalized anxiety and major depression to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“Understanding how the brain adapts to stress at the molecular, cellular and circuit level could provide critical insight into how stress is translated into mood disorders and may reveal novel therapeutic targets for the treatment of stress-related disorders,” said corresponding study author Dr. Sachin Patel, chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and a Northwestern Medicine psychiatrist.

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