We’ve heard a lot in recent years about the opioid epidemic, but there’s another type of drug that has been steadily growing in popularity. Synthetic cannabinoids are manmade psychoactive substances that are similar to chemicals found in the marijuana plant. They are often marketed as being safer than marijuana, but in fact they can be considerably more potent and more dangerous. Use of these drugs has been linked to seizures, psychosis, and death, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of deaths related to the use of synthetic cannabinoids has tripled in recent years. The CDC considers them to be an emerging public health threat. In response, researchers are investigating ways to counter the effects of intoxication.
Synthetic cannabinoids are sometimes called synthetic marijuana, spice, K2, black mamba, joker, Kush, Kronic, or crazy clown. They are either sprayed on dried, shredded plant material and then smoked or sold as liquids to be vaporized and inhaled in e-cigarettes and other devices. These drugs tend to be more popular among young males. In 2010, 11,406 people were admitted to emergency rooms because of synthetic cannabinoids. 75 percent were teens and young adults between the ages of 12 and 29, and 77.5 percent were males.
A new study from the Blizard Institute at Queen Mary University of London, published in the British Journal of Pharmacology, may have found an antidote for cannabis intoxication, or the feeling of being high. Researchers started from the premise that because that feeling of being high occurs when CB1 brain receptors (also called cannabinoid receptor 1) are activated, CB1 receptor antagonists could block intoxication. A cannabinoid receptor antagonist is a type of drug that binds to cannabinoid receptors and prevents them from being activated.
Scientists gave mice a dose of a cannabinoid drug (or CB1 receptor agonist), in order to induce effects similar to intoxication, such as sedation, hypothermia, and hypomotility (abnormally slow movement). Twenty minutes after the mice began exhibiting signs of intoxication, the mice were given a molecule called AM251, which is a CB1 receptor antagonist. They discovered that the molecule blocked the effects or the cannabinoid and reversed signs of intoxication. Twenty minutes after the administration of AM251, sedation was significantly reduced, and after 40 minutes so was the hypothermia.
After discovering that CB1 receptor antagonists could have these effects, the researchers began looking at one such drug called rimonabant. Rimonabant was originally intended to treat obesity, but it had some unfortunate psychiatric side effects, including suicidal thoughts, and it was pulled from the market. However, researchers suggest that manufacturers could begin making the drug again for use in potentially life-threatening situations involving cannabinoid intoxication, although far more study would be needed.
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