University of Utah to Study Cannabinoids’ Effects on the Brain

University of Utah health researchers plan to look for trial participants in early 2019 for a new study of advanced brain-imaging technology to map out personalized effects of cannabinoids.

The study was funded through a $740,000 private donation in April 2018 by the Linden, Utah-based Ray and Tye Noorda Foundation and the San Diego, California-based Wholistic Research and Education Foundation. The two foundations also recently gave $4.7 million to the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research at the University of California-San Diego School of Medicine for a study that will look at whether cannabidiol (CBD) can help alleviate symptoms in severely autistic children.

“Our objective for Wholistic is to enable groundbreaking research to better understand the role of the endocannabinoid system (ECS) in our wellbeing as well as explore if and how CBD can be beneficial in treating a multitude of conditions,” said Andy Noorda, chairman and co-founder of Wholistic Research and Education Foundation as well as an Noorda Foundation  trustee and board member.

About a dozen University of Utah Health study investigators with expertise inneuroimaging, neuropsychology, biostatistics, imaging physics, and psychiatry will work on the two-year study to examine how cannabinoids influence brain networks, and why cannabinoids affect people differently. Using molecular and advanced functional imaging, the researchers will compare effects among the brains of 40 healthy young adults given a placebo, THC or CBD. They will look at these effects on attention, memory, stress, pain, processing of new information, and processing change.

“The role of cannabinoids in medicine and society has been quickly evolving, and there are gaps in our understanding of many basic questions about how cannabinoids affect brain function,” said Dr. Jeff Anderson, associate professor of radiology at the University of Utah School of Medicine and one of the study’s principal investigators. “We are working with industry collaborators to test both purified THC and CBD preparations as well as a CBD extract that may more closely resemble extracts being used in the wider marketplace. We will be using two types of brain imaging: PET and MRI scans to study effects of these preparations on everything from specific receptors in the brain all the way through complex network behavior.”

He said the team will be looking for participants who are healthy, and are not regular cannabis users.

“We hope to have a much clearer understanding about the acute effects on the brain and mechanism of action of CBD and THC, and to test several hypotheses about why the effects differ from person to person,” said Anderson.

Pelin Thorogood, president and co-founder of Wholistic, said the foundation, which formed 10 months ago to support CBD research, education and advocacy, reached out to the University of Utah Health to propose a study that would help map the endocannabinoid system because the university is known for its imaging capabilities.

“We really believe nothing like this has ever been done to understand how the endocannabinoid system functions differently in different individuals,” Thorogood said of the study. “We expect the findings to be truly groundbreaking.”

The Noorda Foundation has funded these first two CBD studies Wholistic has recommended, but the plan is for Wholistic, as well other partner donors, to fund studies in the future. Wholistic has a Medical Advisory Committee made up of physicians, scientists, and other related experts who help provide guidelines, feedback, and approvals for the studies.

“We focus on funding multidisciplinary research that brings together clinical, basic science, advanced mathematics and genetics techniques to enable a comprehensive and systematic exploration of how CBD may benefit various conditions,” Thorogood said.

Noorda, who said his parents’ philanthropic foundation was created more than 10 years ago, became personally involved with CBD because of his son.

“The life-changing experiences CBD delivered for my son who has cerebral palsy has led me to co-found Wholistic Research and Education foundation with Pelin Thorogood and others who share our vision,” he said. “It is important to note that Wholistic is a public charity, which enables us to educate and advocate at the state and national level with research-driven, scientific data.”

Noorda said the University of Utah Health study has the potential to shape the developing field of cannabinoid therapy.

“The findings can be foundational for research into how cannabinoids may be therapeutic for different ailments, as well as how these therapies may have varying impact on individuals depending on the differences in their receptors,” he said. “Both the clinical and anecdotal data available show a lot of promise that CBD can be beneficial for many conditions, but not always or not for everyone. Therefore we don’t want to just explore if CBD works, but also how and why it works. We want the research we fund to uncover the mechanisms at work, and how genetic variations may lead [to]its efficacy or lack of efficacy for different individuals.”

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