​Pot-induced munchies for real: Marijuana fools brain hunger switch, study reveals

Reuters / Mark Leffingwell
Marijuana smokers who experience an overwhelming urge to raid the refrigerator are responding to active ingredients in the psychoactive drug that cause the appetite-suppressive part of the brain to reverse, a new study claims.

Researchers headed by Dr. Tamas Horvath of Yale University, activated the appetites of mice by manipulating the same molecular pathways that regulate cannabis use in the human brain.

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"We found that these neurons, under the influence of cannabinoids, switch the chemicals that they release," Horvath told Live Science. Under normal conditions, the brain cells examined in the study, known as pro-opiomelanocortin (POMC) neurons, release chemicals that give the sensation of being full. But when the neurons were exposed to cannabinoids, the chemical found in marijuana, they release chemicals that induce hunger, he explained.

Horvath compared the change to when “you’re driving your car downhill and you push your brakes, and all of a sudden the brake becomes the accelerator.”

"We were surprised to find that the neurons we thought were responsible for shutting down eating were suddenly being activated and promoting hunger, even when you are full. It fools the brain's central feeding system."

The findings were published in the February 18 issue of Nature journal.

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The research team hopes their findings may be used to find new ways to treat the loss of appetite commonly found among cancer patients, who experience eating disorders due to the disease itself, or to the treatments they receive, such as chemotherapy.

Such patients may suffer from a severe type of weight loss known as cachexia, which the medical use of cannabinoids may help reverse.

Researchers Sachin Patel and Roger D. Cone of Vanderbilt University Medical Center wrote in a related editorial that the most significant part of the findings is that marijuana can alter the brain, basically telling the body it’s still hungry even when it is really full.