Marijuana was first a recreational drug in the United States, grown for high-levels of buzz-giving THC. With the growth of the medical marijuana industry, however – now legal in 20 states – that high is often seen as an inconvenient side effect when it comes to serious medical treatment. A new study suggests there may be a way to give patients the help they need, and only that: Pairing THC with ibuprofen, it turns out, can keep the health benefits but get rid of the high.
Until recently, researchers have been unable to separate the different effects of THC. The notorious high was part and parcel with the painkilling and anti-inflammatory benefits, as were the detrimental effects on long-term memory and neuronal circuitry. But scientists found that when they block a particular enzyme called COX-2 (which ibuprofen or drugs like Celebrex do), the treatment benefits of THC remained, but the high – and the neurological side effects – disappeared.
When scientists added THC and a COX-2 blocker to isolated neurons, they saw that the cells remained healthy – whereas, with THC alone, the cells often begin to have trouble forming connections, something that likely contributes to the memory and cognitive problems seen with long-term pot use. The scientists also gave THC to regular mice and mice genetically engineered not to make COX-2 at all – the biological equivalent of a COX-2 blocker. While regular mice were sluggish, barely moving around their cages, the mice without COXO-2 didn’t show any signs of a high.
Chen hopes a similar combination may soon be prescribed for human patients, too. There’s possibility here for a simple, and sober, drug cocktail: “You could take a COX-2 inhibitor or an OTC painkiller with THC to treat a variety of medical conditions, like epilepsy or multiple sclerosis,” he says. And while his study didn’t look particularly at THC’s analgesic effects, it’s likely this could also work to give people THC’s much-touted pain relief, without the buzz.