Worms exposed to cannabinoid show “the munchies” for preferred food, study finds

New research from the University of Oregon has found that worms exposed to cannabinoids display an increased interest in their preferred food, similar to the human experience of “the munchies” after consuming marijuana. Led by neuroscientist Shawn Lockery, the study suggests that worms could be a useful tool for studying the various roles that cannabinoids play in the body, including regulating appetite, mood, and pain sensation. The endocannabinoid system, which is responsible for these functions, relies on chemical messages sent through cannabinoid receptors throughout the body and brain. This research could lead to the development of more effective drugs that target this system. The study was published in Current Biology on April 20.

According to Lockery, when his team initiated this research, marijuana had recently been legalized for recreational use in Oregon. The team’s use of the tiny C. elegans worms, which are known to have a simple system for testing hypotheses, was not unusual, given their focus on the neurobiology of decision-making. Lockery typically conducts food choice experiments with the worms, and in this case, they were exposed to anandamide, an endocannabinoid that activates the body’s cannabinoid receptors, to observe any changes in their food preferences. The team was initially unsure if the experiment would be successful and regarded it as a somewhat amusing prospect.

To conduct the experiment, Lockery’s team designed a T-shaped maze with high-quality food on one end and lower-quality food on the other. The worms typically prefer high-quality food, which facilitates their growth, and find it more desirable. When soaked in anandamide, the worms showed an even stronger preference for high-quality food, staying there longer than usual.

Lockery explained that this increased preference for existing food is similar to the craving for specific foods that occurs after consuming marijuana. However, in the context of evolution, “higher quality” food refers to high-calorie foods that ensure survival, not necessarily nutritious options. The endocannabinoid system ensures that starving animals seek out high-fat and high-sugar content foods. This is why people often crave chocolate pudding after consuming marijuana, rather than a healthy salad.

Lockery’s team conducted further experiments to identify the specific neurons affected by anandamide. They found that these neurons became more sensitive to the smell of higher quality food and less sensitive to the smell of lower quality food under the influence of anandamide.

The fact that cannabinoids affect food preferences in both worms and humans despite the 600 million-year gap since they shared a common ancestor highlights the ancient evolutionary roots of the endocannabinoid system. Lockery noted that this is a beautiful example of the original purpose of the endocannabinoid system.

The similarity in the response of worms and humans to cannabinoids also suggests that worms can serve as a valuable model for studying the endocannabinoid system. This is particularly relevant given the current limitation of cannabinoids’ medicinal properties, which have broad-ranging effects due to the presence of cannabinoid receptors throughout the body. Targeting these receptors could alleviate a particular problem, but may also have unintended side effects, such as reduced focus after smoking marijuana to relieve pain.

Although the endocannabinoid system has numerous functions in the body, the other proteins involved in the cascade of chemical messages vary depending on the specific bodily system in question. Developing drugs that target these other proteins could lead to fewer side effects compared to broad-spectrum drugs that activate cannabinoid receptors throughout the body.

Worms are an excellent model system for studying these pathways because of their well-characterized genetics. Lockery believes that the worm’s ability to quickly identify signaling pathways could aid in the identification of better drug targets with reduced side effects.

Source: University of Oregon

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