Although cannabis is often associated with “food cravings” in popular culture, a University of Toronto researcher Justin matheson wonders if cannabinoids – compounds naturally found in plants – can actually be used to treat obesity.
“At first glance, the research seems a little paradoxical,” says Matheson, who received a doctorate from the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at Temerty School of Medicine in 2020 and is currently completing a postdoctoral fellowship in the Translational Research Lab. on Addiction at the Center for Addiction and Mental Health.
“But what my supervisor [Professor Bernard Le Foll, chair of addiction psychiatry in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine] and others have found that people who regularly use cannabis actually have a lower BMI, a lower risk of obesity, and a lower risk of diabetes than people who do not use cannabis.
Matheson is part of the inaugural cohort of Toronto Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research Consortium (TC3) scholars.
He recently spoke to the writer Gabrielle Giroday about his work and the growing field of health research related to cannabis and cannabinoids.
What interested you in this area of research?
My work is mainly focused on drug addiction and addictions. For my PhD, I focused on sex and gender and their impact on cannabis use. For example, I published an article in 2019 on how smoking cannabis affected young adults of different genders.
Prior to this project, I was already very interested in studying cannabis addiction and how cannabinoids can be used to treat substance use disorders.
As for this current research, there are some interesting parallels between obesity and overeating, and substance abuse disorders. Both involve harmful behaviors that lead to excessive consumption of food or psychoactive drugs. This is a new area that deserves further exploration.
Can you explain your approach?
This research will include a randomized controlled trial that will examine whether nabilone – a synthetic cannabinoid – can reduce body weight in obese adults.
We recruit a sample of 60 obese people and randomize them to receive either a high dose of the drug nabilone, a low dose or a placebo. Participants will be between 25 and 45 years old.
Nabilone will be taken as an oral capsule. It’s very similar to THC, which is the active component of cannabis, but it’s a little different structurally. Study participants will take nabilone daily for 12 weeks.
During this time, we will be monitoring patients’ body weight and other measurements to see if there are any side effects from nabilone.
In research, we’re not only trying to see if the cannabinoid drug can reduce body weight in obese adults, but we’re also trying to understand why. We’ll do this using neuroimaging, measuring changes in the gut microbiome, and measuring cannabinoids in the blood and different hormones.
We also take measurements of participants’ brain activity at baseline, before they start treatment and at the end of 12 weeks. Specifically, we want to see how the neuronal response to food images changes during processing.
We have started recruiting participants to participate in the research and hope to complete the trial in two years.
What do you hope to accomplish through this work?
Nabilone is similar to THC. And we know that cannabis is actually appetite-friendly – in that it increases the appetite. In the past, cannabis has been associated with “food cravings” and has been used by people with weight loss syndromes or with appetite problems. So at first glance, the research seems a bit paradoxical.
But what my supervisor Le Foll and others found is that people who regularly use cannabis actually have a lower BMI, a lower risk of obesity, and a lower risk of diabetes than people who don’t. do not consume cannabis.
This research will be a first trial in humans to see whether administration of nabilone will cause a decrease in body weight in obese adults, which would replicate animal findings and be consistent with what we see in epidemiological data. We do not yet know what we will find.
How will you measure the effects of nabilone on each participant?
The endocannabinoid system – which is the body’s innate system that underlies the effects of cannabinoids – is a system heavily involved in all kinds of brain processes such as our perceptions of pleasure and reward. So we think it’s possible that our research may reveal that nabilone reduces participants ‘responses to food images, which is why we are performing neuroimaging of the participants’ brains.
Additionally, there is also an interesting relationship between cannabinoids and gut bacteria, so we want to measure the gut microbiome to see if that changes with treatment.
Research has shown that obese people tend to have higher levels of endocannabinoids, which are the body’s own cannabinoid compounds. We believe that taking nabilone, or any cannabinoid drug, over a period of time may disrupt endocannabinoid levels, which may be one of the ways that nabilone results in reduced body weight.
How would you describe the field of cannabis or cannabinoid research these days?
I think research on cannabis and cannabinoids has changed, especially after legalization. It’s definitely a growing field and I feel lucky to have entered the field when I did in 2015 – three years before legalization.
I still think there is still a lot of stigma around cannabis use. This affects participants I work with who frequently use cannabis or have a cannabis use disorder. Hopefully with legalization that will change.
I think it’s a really exciting time to do cannabis research, especially because there are a lot of misconceptions. It seems to be a very polarizing subject. You have cannabis advocates who present it as a ‘cure-all drug’, then you have prohibitionists who argue that it is bad and that it hurts people and that it should be illegal.
For me, it’s somewhere in the middle. There are a lot of misconceptions in the research community and in the general public, which is why the field is so fascinating and this is where I want to continue my career.