The Biology and Chemistry of Cannabis and CBD


Understanding the way that the cannabis plant works within the animal body and brain requires a grasp of neuroscience. In 1970, the Nobel Prize for Medicine went to a small group of scientists who had made important discoveries in the study of neurotransmitters, and the Society of Neuroscience was founded. It was the nascent phase of an enormous inquiry, focused on the chemical messengers used by the brain to communicate information throughout the body.

These messengers, called neurotransmitters, relay signals between nerve cells (neurons) to regulate the body’s major systems. In other words, neurotransmitters are the messengers that relay information between neurons throughout the entirety of the nervous system, including the autonomic nervous system, the central nervous system, and the peripheral nervous system—from tiny receptors in the skin, to the spinal cord, to the brain itself.

Neuroreceptors are specialized protein molecules present in cell membranes and activated by a neurotransmitter, allowing communication through chemical signals. By 1973, researchers had identified receptor sites in the brain capable of binding with opioids, and the discovery of similar receptors for cannabis might have followed soon after.

But efforts were, as Project CBD co-founder Martin A. Lee reported in a 2012 article, “circumscribed by the politicized agenda of the National Institute of Drug Abuse, which subsidized studies designed to prove the deleterious effects of cannabis while blocking inquiry into its potential benefits

in 1992, Dr. Raphael Mechoulam (the same researcher who identified THC as the main psychoactive compound in cannabis thirty years prior) discovered that animal bodies naturally produce what he called endocannabinoids—chemical compounds similar to the plant phytocannabinoids present in hemp and cannabis

Researchers have found the two main receptors in the body, CB1 and CB2, which respond similarly to both the endocannabinoids produced in the body and the plant-based ones when they are introduced. Receptor cells are part of a complex network of chemical messengers in the brain. Other such receptor systems utilize different neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, dopamine, GABA, histamine, or narcotic-like endorphins. Described in terms of a key fitting a lock, the cannabinoids fit in and activate the endocannabinoid system.

The endocannabinoid system, though relatively newly discovered, is extremely important and is responsible for two basic activities. The first is to modulate pleasure, energy, and well-being. The second is to slowly nudge the body back to health in the face of injury and disease.

Last Word

The complexity of how it accomplishes these tasks has generated an astonishing amount of research in the last several decades, culminating in a basic understanding of the scope of this system only within the last ten years.

There is still a great deal to be discovered about it, and it is only beginning to be included in the curriculum at medical schools and incorporated into clinical practice. An informal 2014 survey of U.S. medical schools showed that only 13 percent of institutions covered it at all in their training of new doctors

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