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Minervini will present the research at the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics annual meeting during the 2019 Experimental Biology meeting, held April 6-9 in Orlando, Fla.

The researchers gave several monkeys moderate doses of morphine and CP55940, a synthetic drug that mimics the activity of the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) naturally found in marijuana. They assessed impulsivity and memory with tests involving touchscreens and treats. The results showed each drug impeded performance and that giving the monkeys both drugs together had a lower effect on performance than either drug alone.

Study suggests using the two drugs together could reduce risk of dependency without causing cognitive problems

“The current opioid epidemic underscores the need for safe and effective pharmacotherapies for treating pain,” said Minervini. “Combining opioid receptor agonists with drugs that relieve pain through actions at non-opioid mechanisms (for example, cannabinoid receptors) could be a useful strategy for reducing the dose of opioid needed to achieve pain relief.”

“These data provide additional evidence supporting the notion that opioid-cannabinoid mixtures that are effective for treating pain do not have greater, and in some cases have less, adverse effects compared with larger doses of each drug alone,” said Vanessa Minervini, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.

The research comes amid a national opioid abuse crisis in which many addictions start with opioids prescribed for pain. At the same time, marijuana use is on the rise as more states legalize the drug for medical or recreational use.

So, taken together, cannabis can increase opioid’s pain-relieving effects by modulating opioid-receptor signaling directly through physical interaction between CB1 and opioid receptors, and by increasing the body’s own opioid levels.

Opioid medications predominately target two of these factors. First, they weaken the strength of the pain signals from the site of injury to your brain, and second, they improve your mood by boosting levels of the pleasurable dopamine chemical.

These are two critical elements driving the opioid epidemic and an integral component of the pain experience. After all, pain is subjective. The severity of pain is determined by numerous factors including:

CB1 and Opioid Receptors Interact

To achieve these pain-relieving effects, could THC’s primary target, cannabinoid type I (CB1) receptors, and opioid receptors be working together? There’s evidence that they do.

While the physical interaction between CB1 and opioid receptors is likely important for the pain-relieving effects of cannabis and opioids, cannabis can enhance the effect of opioids by also increasing the body’s endogenous opioid levels, themselves. The effect is reciprocal; THC can increase opioid levels to help relieve pain, and using drugs to boost the body’s own opioid levels enhances THC’s pain-relieving effects.

Pain signals begin at the site of injury, then make their way into the spinal cord and travel up to the brain. After exiting the spinal cord, they activate brain cells in critical pain processing regions including the periaqueductal gray, thalamus, and cortex. If you were to design a pain medication, you’d try to (a) weaken pain signals as they enter and exit the spinal cord and (b) dampen their effect in the brain.

But opioid use has spiraled out of control and we find ourselves amidst an opioid epidemic that cost the U.S. $504 billion in 2015 alone, claims the lives of over 30,000 annually, and damages the quality of life of countless others. Clearly, we must do something to curb the growing opioid epidemic, but unfortunately, it appears that the federal government is ignoring one of its strongest solutions: cannabis.