Could the human body's own "marijuana" hold the key to a healthy and happy childhood? Scientists in Israel have posed the question, and their answer may surprise you.
Recently, researcher Ester Fride of the Behavioral Sciences Department of Israel's College of Judea and Samaria published a pair of scientific papers stating that the brain's cannabinoid receptors (receptors in the brain that respond pharmacologically to various compounds in cannabis as well as other endogenous compounds) and the naturally occurring messenger molecules that activate and bind to them (so-called endocannabinoids) "are present from the early stages of gestation" and may play "a number of vital roles" in human prenatal and postnatal development.
Writing in Neuroendocrinology Letters and the European Journal of Pharmacology, Fride suggests, "A role for the endocannabinoid system for the human infant is likely."
She notes that in animals, the endogenous cannabinoid system fulfills several important developmental functions, including: embryonal implantation (which requires a temporary and localized reduction in the production of the endocannabinoid anandamide), neural development, neuroprotection, the development of memory and oral-motor skills, and the initiation of suckling in newborns.
A dysfunctional endocannabinoid system, Fride speculates, may be responsible for certain abnormalities in infants, particularly "failure-to-thrive" syndrome, a condition in which newborns fail to properly grow and gain weight. (In animal studies, mice fail to gain weight and die within the first week of life when their cannabinoid receptors are blocked.)
Nevertheless, the author does not recommend that pregnant mothers consume cannabis, noting that a handful of studies have observed subtle cognitive deficiencies in offspring with prenatal exposure to pot. (At present, there exists little consensus within the scientific community as to whether infrequent cannabis use may impair postnatal development, as various studies have yielded conflicting results.)
Fride does, however, strongly recommend the use of cannabinoids in pediatric medicine. She notes that "excellent clinical results" have been reported in pediatric oncology and in case studies of children with severe neurological diseases or brain trauma, and suggests that cannabis-derived medicines could also play a role in the treatment of other childhood syndromes, including the pain and gastrointestinal inflammation associated with cystic fibrosis.
Because the development of the cannabinoid receptor system appears to occur gradually over the course of childhood, "children may be less prone to the psychoactive side effects of THC or endocannabinoids than adults," Fride writes. "Therefore, it is suggested that children may respond positively to the medicinal applications of cannabinoids without [psychoactive] effects." She concludes, "The medical implications of these novel developments are far reaching and suggest a promising future for cannabinoids in pediatric medicine" for conditions including cachexia (severe weight loss), cystic fibrosis, failure-to-thrive, anorexia, inflammation, and chronic pain.
"It's clear that the cannabinoid system is essential for complete human development, and that cannabis medicines have a great potential to help sick children," says University of Southern California professor Mitch Earlywine, author of the book, Understanding Marijuana: A New Look at the Scientific Evidence. "Given the well established safety of the medication, clinical trials for other disorders, particularly cystic fibrosis and 'failure-to-thrive,' seem a humane and essential next step."