Your Brain on Food

How chemicals control your thoughts and feelings.

Enhancing marijuana in the brain with Advil

This is going to make headaches a lot more popular!

Save your money! Your brain makes its own marijuana. In fact it may make five different types of marijuana; one is called anandamide.  Your entire brain expresses protein receptors that can respond to one or more of these endogenous marijuana-like chemicals. They are likely involved in controlling the development new cells prior to and after birth.  Anandamide also plays an important role in controlling inflammation in the brain.  Recently, scientists have discovered that anandamide and the other marijuana-like chemicals in your brain control both feeding and feelings of hunger as well as happiness and euphoria.

Dating back over three thousand years, the sacred Indian Vedas texts referred to marijuana as "a source of happiness, donator of joy, and bringer of freedom."  The contents released from the marijuana plant are able to produce these feelings in humans because they enter the brain and mimic the actions of our endogenous marijuana-like compounds, such as anandamide.

Once anandamide is released inside your brain it is rather quickly inactivated by being vacuumed up into a nearby cell or by being metabolized by specific enzymes. One of these enzymes is called cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2). Ibuprofen (as Advil or Motrin), aspirin, Celebrex,Vioxx, and many other drugs are capable of inhibiting this enzyme. Thus, taking these drugs should enhance the actions of anandamide and thereby mimic the effects of marijuana in your brain. Obviously, this does not happen; otherwise, these products would not be so widely available for anyone to use and abuse. 

The reason that we do not get "high on aspirin" is that these drugs cannot easily cross the blood-brain barrier into the brain.  Scientists have shown that aspirin, Advil and the other drugs are capable of enhancing the actions of endogenous marijuana-like chemicals under some peculiar conditions. A recent study by Brazilian neuroscientists demonstrated that oral aspirin could potentiate the effects of anandamide in the brain.  However, the dose of aspirin used was exceptionally high; a similar dose would be lethal to humans! 

Our intestines contain their own endogenous marijuana chemicals; taking high doses of aspirin or Advil will significantly increase the levels of these chemicals in the gut.  This turns out to be advantageous: anandamide and its related marijuana-like chemicals are both anti-inflammatory and analgesic (pain reducing).  Drug companies have taken notice of these benefits and are trying to find ways to treat painful inflammations of the bowel such as Crohn's disease or colitis.  Enhancing the levels of anandamide in the colon may also reduce the incidence of colon cancer.

In summary, the brain contains its own marijuana-like family of chemicals.  The levels of these marijuana-like chemicals can be increased by slowing their inactivation with widely available, over-the-counter drugs.  The problem is that these drugs generally do not cross the blood-brain barrier, thus limiting their ability to augment the actions of anandamide.  The drug in this group that crosses the blood-brain barrier to the greatest degree is ibuprofen, Advil.  Obviously, too little gets into the brain to actually produce the classic "high" or marijuana. Neuroscientists are trying to find novel ways of enhancing the beneficial actions of anandamide in the brain; inventing a super-Advil might be one approach.   

© Gary L. Wenk, Ph.D. Author of Your Brain on Food (Oxford Univ Press, 2010)

Gary L. Wenk, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology & Neuroscience & Molecular Virology, Immunology and Medical Genetics at the Ohio State University.

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