Canadian researcher investigates the use of cannabinoids as a treatment for obesity

Cannabis is a plant with myriad uses, one of which is increasing appetite. So much so, that the plant’s reputation has radically transformed from being associated with “the munchies” to being touted as a tool for anorexia and cachexia (wasting syndrome).

Now, University of Toronto researcher Justin Matheson is exploring the possibility of using cannabis as an aid for treating obesity, too.

Matheson bagged himself a PhD from the Temerty Faculty of Medicine’s department of pharmacology and toxicology in 2020.

Looking to the future, he is focused on the completion of a post-doctoral research scholarship in the Center for Addiction and Mental Health’s Translational Addiction Research Laboratory.

The enthusiastic researcher who is proud to be one of the inaugural members of the Toronto Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research Consortium (TC3) devotes his time to discovering whether or not cannabinoids can be relied on as an option for obese patients who want to lose weight.

“On the surface, the research seems a bit paradoxical but what my supervisor [Professor Bernard Le Foll, chair of addiction psychiatry in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine] and others have found is that people who use cannabis regularly actually have lower BMI, lower risk of obesity and a lower of risk of diabetes then people who don’t use cannabis.”

What approach will the research into cannabinoids for obesity take?
Pictured: University of Toronto researcher Justin Matheson

A synthetic cannabinoid drug called ‘nabilone’ is the substance of choice for this research initiative into cannabinoids for obesity. As part of the randomized controlled trial, Matheson intends on administering nabilone to 60 obese adult study subjects.

Each participant will receive either a high dose of nabilone, a low dose or, in some cases, a placebo. The age range for study subjects varies from 25 to 45 years. Those who receive nabilone will do so in the form of an oral capsule over a 12-week period. 

Although it is incredibly similar to the psychoactive cannabis compound THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the structural composition of nabilone is slightly different to the cannabinoid. Various factors will be assessed to determine the adverse effects (if any) of consuming nabilone. 

This will be accomplished through neuroimaging, the evaluation of gut microbiome, the measurement of cannabinoids contained in the blood, as well as the amount of other hormones found in the body.

Additionally, prior to the 12-week treatment period and afterwards, Matheson and his team will measure each person’s brain activity at the baseline. The reason for this, Matheson says, is to assess any changes in neural reaction after participants are exposed to images of edible items throughout the course of treatment. 

Trial could stimulate further exploration into the parallels between obesity and overeating

Participants are already being recruited to partake in this study on cannabinoids for obesity, which is anticipated to run for a total of two years. No other in-human trial has involved the administration of nabilone to obese adults. 

Should the findings match the theory maintained by researchers, it would support animal findings which, Matheson says, would mirror what scientists have already gleaned from epidemiological data. His work focuses mainly on addictions and substance use disorders. 

The impact(s) that gender and sex may have on cannabis consumption habits and behaviors was assessed by Matheson for his doctorate degree. Back in 2019, he published a paper assessing the influence that smokable cannabis has on young adults of different sexes.

His new research effort will explore the likeness between obesity and overeating/overindulgence, substance use disorders and addiction. Matheson noted that each behavioral problem entails destructive behavioral patterns that contribute to increased consumption of food or psychoactive substances a topic that requires further analysis.