THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the primary ingredient in marijuana that is responsible for the high it creates. Getting high is not all it’s good for but THC also has a wide range of medical benefits, and is commonly reported to relieve pain, nausea, and depression, among many other things.
Scientific research on THC began decades ago in Israel, and has since spread to many countries across the globe. Due to its status as an illegal drug, information about this cannabis compound is hard to come by.
Its discovery in 1964
THC was first isolated and synthesized from the cannabis plant by a scientist called Dr. Raphael Mechoulam in Israel.
As a postdoctoral student in the early 60s, Dr. Mechoulam noticed that the active compounds in morphine and cocaine had been isolated, but no one had isolated the active ingredient in marijuana.
He was in such a rush to conduct his research that he actually broke the law by obtaining marijuana from his friends in the police department. Even with all the hardships, the scientist managed to isolate THC is 1964, marking the start of a long career dedicated to cannabis research.
The discovery of THC paved the way for later discovered and earned Dr. Mechoulam numerous honors, including a NIDA Discovery Award in 2011.
THC is part of more than 60 active ingredients in cannabis
Despite THC being the most recognized ingredients in marijuana, it is just one of many compounds in the plant with known medical uses.
It belongs to a unique class of compounds called cannabinoids. Since Dr. Mecholam’s discovery, more than 60 other cannabinoids in cannabis have been identified.
THC is used in FDA-approved pharmaceuticals
While THC is still illegal in the U.S. and most countries around the world, synthetic versions of the chemical have been legally prescribed for decades.
The first THC-based pharmaceutical, called a Marinol, was developed by a company called Unimed Pharmaceuticals with funding from the National Cancer Institute. In 1985, Marinol received FDA approval as a treatment for chemotherapy-related nausea and vomiting.
Since then, other pharmaceuticals containing THC have been developed. These include Cesament, a synthetic form of THC, and Sativex, a whole cannabis extract administered as an oral spray.
THC can protect brain cells and stimulate their growth
Contrary to the age old story that THC destroys your brain cells, it has been proven to have a number of positive effects on them. Whereas most recreational drugs are neurotoxic, THC is considered to be a “neuroprotectant,” meaning it can protect brain cells from damage caused by things like inflammation and oxidative stress.
Scientists have even shown that THC can promote the growth of new brain cells through a process known as neurogenesis. This effect was first discovered in 2005 by researchers at the University of Saskatchewan.
Dr. Xia Zhang, the study’s lead author, noted in an interview with Science Daily: “Most drugs of abuse suppress neurogenesis. Only marijuana promotes neurogenesis”.
Chemicals like THC are found in the body
Following the discovery of THC, scientists went on a decades long search for similar chemicals in humans that might explain its effects. In 1992, Dr. Mechoulam and his team made another breakthrough when they discovered a molecule called anandamide.
Anandamide is one of the few cannabinoids produced in various parts of the body, including the brain. Similar to the way opioids work by mimicking their natural counterparts, chemicals in marijuana mimic naturally occurring cannabinoids called endocannabinoids.
Both anandamide and THC act on pathways in the body called cannabinoid receptors. In the brain, anandamide works to regulate mood, sleep, memory and appetite.