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Thursday, 25 March, 1999, 11:04 GMT
'Natural marijuana' may treat brain disorders
Marijuana
The brain chemical is similar to marijuana
Scientists hope to use a marijuana-like chemical in the brain to treat Parkinson's Disease and schizophrenia.

The chemical, known as anandamide, helps to regulate body movement and coordination.

A team from the University of California Irvine believes it can be used to treat diseases which produce uncontrollable movements such as tics and shaking.

The researchers have used anandamide to limit brain activity in rats.

Writing in the journal Nature Neuroscience, they said anandamide interferes with the effects of nerve cells that transmit dopamine, the message-carrying chemical responsible for stimulating movement and other motor behaviour in the brain.

Uncontrolled production of dopamine has been blamed for some of the symptoms of schizophrenia and the nervous tics and outbursts associated with Tourette's syndrome.

A lack of dopamine is blamed for the shaking and motor hesitation that marks Parkinson's disease.

Major breakthrough

Michael J Fox
The actor Michael J Fox has Parkinson's Disease
Daniele Piomelli, an associate professor of pharmacology at UCI, said the research had shown for the first time how anandamides work in the brain to produce normal motor activity.

He said: "Patients with schizophrenia and other diseases have reported that marijuana appears to relieve some of their symptoms, but scientists have never found a physiological reason why.

"By understanding how the anandamide system works similarly to marijuana, we can explore new ways to treat these diseases more effectively."

But Professor Piomelli said cannabis itself did not offer any kind of cure.

"Marijuana doesn't provide the regulatory effects on dopamine in the brain that we're looking for," he said.

Anandamide, named after the Sanskrit word for "bliss and tranquillity," is used by a network of nerve cells in an area of the brain called the striatum, which coordinates body movements and other motor behaviour, the researchers said.

Normally nerve cells regulate this behaviour by releasing anandamides at the same time they release dopamine.

The anandamides bind to cannabinoid receptors, which are where tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient in marijuana, docks onto cells.

When the team blocked these receptors, rats experienced severe nervous tics and other uncontrolled motor activity.

Professor Piomelli said new drugs that mimic the effects of anandamides could offer gentler treatments for some diseases.

He said: "Current drugs certainly halt the actions of dopamine, but the side effects, including sedation and dizziness, are very severe," he said.

In a commentary, Professor David Self of Yale University said the approach could be used to develop drugs that help Parkinson's treatments, which try to boost production of dopamine in the brain but whose effects wear off after a few years.

Drugs that stimulate the cannabinoid receptor might also be used against Huntington's disease, a fatal and incurable disease first marked by jerks and spasms, Professor Self added.

See also:

26 Nov 98 | Medical notes
Parkinson's Disease
16 Nov 98 | Health
Schizophrenics fear violent label
13 Oct 99 | Medical notes
Schizophrenia: The facts
05 Jan 99 | Health
Cannabis grown for medical tests
27 Jan 99 | Health
Two types of Parkinson's
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