Linares, I. M. et al. Braz. J. Psychiatry 41, 9–14 (2019).
This is important because people typically require large doses of the drug to experience a clinical benefit — in many studies, the doses used are as high as 1 gram or more. This is because CBD is poorly absorbed by the body, with most of every dose being excreted before it can take effect. “If you take it orally, the bioavailability is in the range of 4–6%, which is terrible,” says Devinsky. “If you take it after a fatty meal, you can get that up to 16–20%.” Zuardi notes that his group routinely observes a bell-shaped dose–response curve for CBD. For example, whereas 300 milligrams of CBD might reduce a person’s anxiety, the same person might not get any relief from a dose of either 100 milligrams or 900 milligrams. To complicate matters further, this sweet spot for CBD dosing can differ not only between symptoms, but also between patients.
Cannabidiol (CBD) is an illegal drug with no redeeming value. It is also a useful prescription medicine for epilepsy, with considerable potential for treating numerous other conditions. And it is a natural dietary supplement or ‘nutraceutical’ with countless evangelists in the health and wellness community. Although contradictory, all three statements are true from different perspectives, and clinical researchers are frustrated.
Many such claims lie beyond the bounds of medical evidence — including that regarding CBD preparations that purport to prevent cancer or to treat Alzheimer’s disease. However, even products that make more modest claims could be problematic. In 2017, Bonn-Miller and his colleagues performed chemical analyses on 84 products purchased online from 31 companies, and found that only 31% were accurately labelled with regard to CBD content 14 . What’s more, many commercially available preparations have been found to be contaminated with intoxicating doses of THC, heavy metals and pesticides, as well as toxic solvents from the CBD extraction process. In a case reported by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up to 52 people in Utah became seriously ill or were hospitalized after using a CBD oil that contained an intoxicating synthetic cannabinoid drug. The possibility of such contamination is concerning to all potential users, and especially to people who are seeking relief from the effects of a health condition. “It’s one thing if you’ve got too much THC in gummy bears you’re using with friends, but something entirely different if it’s a kid you’re giving CBD for medical reasons,” says Bonn-Miller. “I don’t trust any CBD product until I’ve done the tests.”
Updates & Corrections
Psychosis — particularly in the context of schizophrenia — is one such area of promise. In 1995, Zuardi and Mechoulam reported the case of a person with schizophrenia who experienced meaningful relief from their symptoms when treated with high doses of CBD 9 . Several subsequent small-scale clinical studies detected similar hints of efficacy. In their groundbreaking trial 3 , Leweke and his colleagues put the compound through a particularly rigorous test by comparing its effects with those of amisulpride, a potent medication for schizophrenia. “We saw a significant decrease in symptoms over time for both compounds, and CBD beat amisulpride in terms of side effects, by far,” Leweke says. The team also found a clue to the mechanism by which CBD might exert its antipsychotic effects: treatment with CBD was associated with elevated levels of anandamide, a cannabinoid produced by the body that seems to offer protection from psychosis.
This flies in the face of current evidence. Numerous studies have shown that CBD is a safe and non-habit-forming substance that does not produce the ‘high’ associated with tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive component of cannabis 1 . In 2018, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) determined that Epidiolex — a purified CBD product developed by GW Pharmaceuticals in Histon, UK — effectively reduces the frequency of seizures in certain rare forms of paediatric epilepsy. This approval has heartened the cannabinoid research community, which has long recognized the medicinal potential of CBD but come up against scepticism and regulatory constraints on the road to the clinic.
The regulatory disconnect that surrounds CBD creates an odd situation in which the public can self-medicate using a potentially questionable product, while scientists face a struggle to perform high-quality clinical trials. “The fact that CBD remains schedule 1 in the United States is unconscionable,” says Devinsky. That restrictive classification, he says, “is impairing research”.
Cunha, J. M. et al. Pharmacology 21, 175–185 (1980).
Michael Eisenstein is a freelance writer in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
In more recent years, three other novel receptor candidates, GPR18, GPR19 and GPR55, have been discovered, as well as non-CB1Rs and non-CB2Rs, but knowledge on these systems is incomplete and the discussion on whether or not they meet the criteria to qualify as receptors or channels is ongoing [Mackie and Stella, 2006; Pertwee et al. 2010; Pamplona and Takahashi, 2012]. It is generally established that some endocannabinoids, d-9-THC and several synthetic CB1R/CB2R agonists and antagonists can also interact with a number of non-CB1, non-CB2 GPCRs, ligand-gated ion channels and nuclear receptors (see the recent review by Pertwee and colleagues [Pertwee et al. 2010]). In conclusion, the biochemical mechanisms of this system are far more complex and the discussion on whether any known mammalian channel or non-CB1R/CB2R should be classified as a novel cannabinoid ‘CB3’ receptor or channel is ongoing.
In the brain, CB1Rs are found at the terminals of central and peripheral neurons, where they mostly mediate inhibitory action on ongoing release of a number of excitatory and inhibitory dopaminergic, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), glutamatergic, serotoninergic, noradrenalin and acetylcholine neurotransmitter systems ( Figure 1 ). Because of the involvement of these systems they affect functions such as cognition, memory, motor movements and pain perception [Howlett et al. 2002]. The release of endocannabinoids, such as AEA and 2-AG, from the postsynaptic sites to the synaptic cleft occur in response to elevation of intracellular calcium and they then act as retrograde neurotransmitters on presynaptically located CB1Rs to maintain homeostasis and prevent the excessive neuronal activity [Howlett et al. 2002; Terry et al. 2009]. They are then rapidly removed from the extracellular space by cannabinoid transporters, often referred to as anandamide membrane transporters, which facilitate their breakdown by internalizing the molecule and allowing access to fatty acid amide hydrolase [Pertwee, 2010]. Despite its significance in the endocannabinoid system, little is known about the cannabinoid transporters.
Cannabinoid 1 and 2 receptors
Normally GPCRs are linked together to form a receptor complex. However, the signalling effects can be complex due to CB1Rs forming heteromers, which can be defined as having different parts such as subunits, with two or more other GPCRs, particularly if they are densely expressed in the same neuron. For instance, a CB1R can form a heteromer with dopamine D2 receptor, or in another instance it can also form a heteromer with two other receptors such as dopamine D2 and adenosine A2A [Navarro et al. 2008]. Interestingly, as a result, ligand bindings can produce unexpected pharmacological effects. For instance, in a heteromer complex, not only the antagonist of CB1R but also the other receptor antagonist can block the inhibitory effect of CB1R agonist. This has been demonstrated by Marcellino and colleagues when the CB1R antagonist rimonabant and the specific A2AR antagonist MSX-3 blocked the inhibitory effect of CB1 agonist on D2-like receptor agonist induced hyperlocomotion in rats [Marcellino et al. 2008]. Receptor heteromers provide better understanding of how these different neurotransmitter systems interact with each other. Compelling evidence for the existence of CB1R heteromers in striatal dendritic spines of striatal GABAergic efferent neurons, particularly at a postsynaptic location, has also been reported [Ferré et al. 2009]. The authors propose that it is likely that functional CB1–A2A–D2 receptor heteromers can be found in the dendritic spines of GABAergic enkephalinergic neurons, where they are highly coexpressed, and their analysis provides new information on the role of endocannabinoids in striatal function, which can be considered as retrograde signals that inhibit neurotransmitter release. Further evidence for the existence of D2 and CB1Rs in ventral striatum is provided by electron microscopy analysis, which confirms the relevance to the rewarding and euphoric, as well as motor effects produced by cannabis, by enhancing dopamine levels particularly in the nucleus accumbens [Pickel et al. 2006]. CB1R expression in the striatum and their role in differential signalling between different developmental stages and sensorimotor and associative/limbic circuits have also been demonstrated in a recent study [van Waes et al. 2012].
More recently, van Winkel and colleagues looked at the effects of recent cannabis use whilst examining 152 single nucleotide polymorphisms in 42 candidate genes in 801 patients with psychosis and their 740 unaffected siblings [van Winkel et al. 2011]. The authors found that genetic variation in serine-threonine protein kinase (AKT1) may mediate both short- and long-term effects on psychosis expression associated with cannabis use. The authors suggest that the likely mechanism could be cannabinoid-regulated AKT1/glycogen synthase kinase 3 signalling downstream of the dopamine D2 receptor. Indeed, CB1R agonists have been shown to induce AKT1 phosphorylation, whilst the antagonists of this receptor have inhibited AKT1 signalling pathways [Molina-Holgado et al. 2002]. Further support for the possible involvement of the AKT1 gene comes from our study with healthy volunteers. This study found that, during the encoding and recall conditions of the verbal memory task, the induction of psychotic symptoms by d-9-THC was correlated with the attenuated striatal and midbrain activation only in those who were G homozygotes of AKT1 and carriers of the 9-repeat allele dopamine transporter (DAT1) [Bhattacharyya et al. 2012] ( Table 2 ).
Brief history of the biochemistry of the cannabis plant
In relation to the imaging data, during the response inhibition task, relative to placebo, d-9-THC attenuated the engagement of brain regions that normally mediate response inhibition, whilst CBD modulated activity in regions not implicated with this task [Borgwardt et al. 2008]. During the verbal learning and retrieval of word pair tasks, d-9-THC modulated activity in mediotemporal and ventrostriatal regions, whilst CBD had no such effect [Bhattacharyya et al. 2009b]. During an emotional processing task d-9-THC and CBD had clearly distinct effects on the neural, electrodermal and symptomatic response to fearful faces [Fusar-Poli et al. 2009]. Our results suggest that the effects of CBD on activation in limbic and paralimbic regions may contribute to its ability to reduce autonomic arousal and subjective anxiety, whereas the anxiogenic effects of d-9-THC may be related to effects in other brain regions. During the auditory task, again these two compounds had opposite effects in the superior temporal cortex when subjects listened to speech and in the occipital cortex during visual processing [Winton-Brown et al. 2011].