Worms get the munchies too

Cannabis is renowned for triggering food cravings, but it seems humans aren’t the only animals to get the munchies after a heavy session.

While cannabinoids can boost people’s appetite and make them crave high-calorie foods, University of Oregon researchers have found they have exactly the same effect on worms.

The team soaked nematodes (roundworms) in the endocannabinoid anandamide and put them in a T-shaped maze, with the worm equivalent of junk food on one side and a low-calorie option on the other.

Humans are not the only animals to crave high-calorie foods after exposure to cannabinoids

While the worms naturally prefer high-calorie food, the researchers found the preference was much stronger in the anandamide-affected cohort, which gravitated to that side of the maze and stayed there for longer. 

Corresponding author of the study Shawn Lockery said: “The endocannabinoid system helps make sure that an animal that’s starving goes for high fat and sugar content food.

“This increase in existing preference is analogous to eating more of the foods you would crave anyway. It’s like choosing pizza versus oatmeal.”

In further experiments to see how anandamide affected the worm’s neurons, the team found that they were also more sensitive to the smell of high-calorie food.

As humans and worms last shared a common ancestor millions of years ago, the fact both species exhibit similar food preference changes in response to cannabinoids shows how long the endocannabinoid system has been around.

“Nematodes diverged from the lineage leading to mammals more than 500 million years ago,” Lockery said. “It is truly remarkable that the effects of cannabinoids on appetite are preserved through this length of evolutionary time.

“It’s a really beautiful example of what the endocannabinoid system was probably for at the beginning.”

He suggested the worms could be useful in future studies and the development of drugs targeting cannabinoid receptors in the body.

“The ability to rapidly find signaling pathways in the worm could help identify better drug targets, with fewer side effects,” he said.

The study was published in Current Biology.


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