The endocannabinoid system (ECS) has long been associated with how we process emotions, including stress and fear. Anandamide, the very first discovered, and likely most well-understood endogenous cannabinoid, functions as a neurotransmitter that actively combats the feelings of stress and fear.
In the body, Anandamide is degraded by the Fatty Acid Amide Hydrolase (FAAH), so blocking FAAH activity can effectively increase anandamide in our bodies, much like how preventing a faucet from closing will set up for a flood of extra water.
Fear extinction is one of the core known functions of the anandamide molecule. When a stimulus is un-coupled from a fear response in the body, this is a process governed by anandamide. For example, mice can be trained to associate a certain noise with a shock (fear training) and then dissociate the noise from the shock when they are presented with the noise by itself (fear extinction training).
Research about the endocannabinoid system and fear
In astudy published in Molecular Psychiatry, administration of an FAAH inhibitor in mice decreased fear when it was paired with a fear extinction training. Interestingly, however, the FAAH inhibitor did not impact fear if no extinction training occurred. Of particular interest, anandamide levels in the amygdala, another memory organ in the body, were increased, after fear extinction training, an effect that was increased further in the presence of a FAAH inhibitor.
Considering these findings, the researchers speculate that variations in the FAAH gene, and therefore one’s expected level of anandamide breakdown, may be a relevant chemistry dynamic that underlies differences in one person’s ability to detect fear or cope with stress, from another’s.
Consider, for example, a young boy who is afraid of a spider. When he notices the spider, consciously or not, his body immediately responds with a flight or fight response. This process happens in a synchronized way across multiple organs, including the amygdala, the adrenal glands, and traversing blood vessels throughout the body and brain.
What does this mean for me?
Toward a goal of minimizing the impact of fear, the natural response can be subdued in the presence of anandamide, perhaps aided and amplified by the actions or inactions of FAAH. Should someone have a gene which builds for them a very weak FAAH system, it is likely that they will have a much easier time recovering from fearful stimuli, because there will be less breakdown of anandamide.
On the other hand, someone who has a very strong FAAH system would degrade their natural levels of anandamide and may have more persistent fear responses.
In a world flush with fear, anxiety, and aggression, it is easy to imagine the relevance of a body system that helps to quell these negative emotions. Or, the contrary, it becomes simple to see the opportunity presented by a system of introducing molecular copy-cat molecules to some of the substances.
To learn more about the endocannabinoid system and existing research about cannabinoids, explore the CED blog for our insights.