CBD and Autism Research

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Researchers Have Discovered The Link Between The “Love Hormone” And The “Bliss Molecule” And Believe It Could Be Linked To Autism:  Can CBD Tie It All Together?

Known as the “love hormone”, oxytocin is a powerful, naturally occurring hormone that acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain.

It plays a critical role in social interactions and behaviors including sexual reproduction and pleasure, orgasm, maternal-infant bonding, lactation, selective social bonding, empathy, trust, and generosity.

Oxytocin is produced mainly in the hypothalamus of the brain. Once produced, it is released into the blood via the pituitary gland, or to other parts of the brain and spinal cord, where it binds to oxytocin receptors to influence behavior and physiology. Oxytocin levels have been shown to increase in both socially connective experiences and under stressful conditions as well.

Anandamide, on the other hand, is an endogenous cannabinoid that was first identified by Israeli cannabis researcher Dr. Raphael Mechoulam back in the 90’s. A chemical made by the brain, Mechoulam named it “anandamide”, which came from the Sanskrit word “ananda”, meaning “supreme bliss”. Similar to how the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) works, anandamide activates CB1 receptors and is involved in a variety of biological processes including memory, motivation, higher thought processes, and movement control. Aside from its ability to heighten motivation and happiness, it also plays an important role in pain, appetite, and fertility as well.

But are the “love hormone” and the “bliss molecule” connected in some way? Amazingly, researchers have discovered that the ‘love hormone’ helps produce ‘bliss molecules’ to boost pleasure of social interactions.

In a groundbreaking 2015 study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, researchers from the University of California, Irvine measured anandamide levels in the brains of mice that were either isolated or allowed to interact with other mice.

They found that social contact increased the mobilization of anandamide in the nucleus accumbens (the brain structure that regulates motivated behavior), which activated CB1 receptors to boost the rewarding properties and enhance the pleasure of social interactions. When the CB1 were blocked, this reinforcement disappeared.

But which neural circuits were responsible for the increases in anandamide during socialization?

The researchers wanted to see if there was a connection to oxytocin, which as we mentioned earlier, is known to influence social connections. The researchers discovered that:

  1. Blocking the oxytocin receptor with an antagonist prevented the rise in anandamide levels during social interaction.
  2. Stimulating the oxytocin receptor with an agonist increased anandamide levels without social interaction.
  3. Chemogenetic activation of oxytocin secreting neurons in the brain also increased anandamide levels as well. Chemogenetics works like a chemical-genetic remote control by introducing a synthetic brain chemical messenger system that integrates with the workings of naturally-occurring systems.

These results showed that oxytocin acts as a social reinforcement signal by enhancing the mobilization and production of anandamide.

Adding to these discoveries, the researchers also found that when anandamide was prevented from being degraded, it enhanced social reward significantly.

You see, the fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH) is the main anandamide-degrading enzyme in the brain, so interrupting the activity of FAAH enhances the effects of this endocannabinoid neurotransmitter. More importantly, they also found that interruption of anandamide degradation completely offset the loss of social reward and pleasure observed when blocking the oxytocin receptor.

The researchers concluded that because the results indicated that anandamide-mediated signaling at CB1 receptors, driven by oxytocin, controls social reward, deficits in this signaling mechanism may contribute to social impairment in autism spectrum disorders and might offer an avenue to treat these conditions.

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder whose symptoms include impaired communication and social skills, and compulsive and repetitive behaviors. The disease usually appears in infancy or early childhood, and can be debilitating. The causes of the disease are poorly understood and there is no known cure.

However, this study provides an interesting avenue for additional research into pharmacological modulation of oxytocin-driven anandamide signaling (by using, for example, FAAH inhibitors) and how it might open new doors to treat social impairment in autism spectrum disorders.

The implications for autism spectrum disorders

This work was supported by the Autism Science Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship grant and the UC Irvine Center for Autism Research and Translation CART grant as well. Furthermore, one of the co-authors of the study was Dr. Olga Peñagarikano from the Center for Autism Research and Treatment and Center for Neurobehavioral Genetics. She is an expert in neuropsychiatric disorders with focus on Autism Spectrum Disorder. With this much support from the autism science community, you can clearly see how important this study was for the future of autism research.

But what’s even more exciting is how cannabidiol or CBD could tie all of this together.

You see, one of CBD’s mechanisms of action is its ability to inhibit the enzyme FAAH which prevents the degradation of anandamide. This makes CBD an excellent candidate for countering the social impairment in autism.

In fact, in a recently announced pioneering study, researchers in Israel are beginning to test that theory. The project, which will test the effects of cannabinoids on 120 children and young adults who suffer from moderate to severe autism, is the first of its kind worldwide. Some engage in self-harming behaviors and about 40% do not respond well to existing medication. The researchers are mostly administering CBD in a 20:1 ratio to THC in a controlled, double-blind study. The THC is included for its ability to work synergistically with CBD and boost its effects (known as the entourage effect).

Although it is unclear how CBD and other cannabinoids could positively affect people with autism, CBD’s role as an FAAH inhibitor could be the key that ties it all together.

The study is currently underway so it will take some time before the results are published. However, based on the fact that parents of children who suffer from autism are lining up for the new trial, clearly expectations are high. Hopefully this study will produce strong results. Stay tuned.

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