It’s no secret that marijuana helps to increase appetite, but its potential to treat anorexia may not quite so simple.
What scientists now know is that anorexia actually leads to changes in the brain – specifically in pathways connected to marijuana.
These pathways are part of the endocannabinoid system, which include natural marijuana-like chemicals (cannabinoids) and the receptors that they bind to.
Last week, a team of Belgium researchers published more evidence of this relationship from a “well-known rodent model” of anorexia nervosa.
Their findings appear online in the European Journal of Nuclear Medicine and Molecular Imaging.
“These data point to a widespread transient disturbance of the endocannabinoid transmission, specifically for CB1 receptors in the ABA model [activity-based rat model of anorexia].”
They also concluded that a change in the brain’s cannabinoid system likely takes place as an effect – rather than a cause – of anorexia.
Specifically, their findings suggest that the body creates more receptors to compensate for a “chronically hypoactive” endocannabinoid system in cases of anorexia. But these changes may only be temporary, since receptors rebounded to normal levels after the experiments stopped.
Like marijuana, chemicals that make up the endocannabinoid system act as regulators of appetite.
Some scientists believe that the body may produce lower levels of these chemicals in order to improve the ability to survive during periods of “prolonged starvation” – or anorexic states.
That is, patients with anorexia may experience a natural decrease in appetite because of changes that occur in the brain.
Although yet to be tested in anorexia, the authors note that marijuana has been shown to increase food intake in other patient groups.
“Cannabis and cannabinoid agonists with minimal psychoactive side effect profile have been used as eating stimulants in acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) or cancer patients.”
Unfortunately, treatment options are limited when it comes to anorexia and full recovery is seen in only 40-50 % of patients, according to the authors.
They hope their latest findings will lead to a better understanding of how marijuana-based treatments may be used to help patients recover from the eating disorder.