Zebrafish are the Next Frontier for Cannabis Research

Matt Weeks February 1, 2021 0 comments

Zebrafish research is already key to studying neurological disease. Now, it could unlock the mysteries of cannabis.

An aquatic animal may not seem like the best vehicle to further science’s understanding of weed. But, the special skeletal and organ makeup of the zebrafish make it ideally suited for research into how cannabis affects brain chemistry and function.  Unlike many other animals, the zebrafish’s brain activity is not obscured by a skull. This unique physiology makes changes in brain activity easy to monitor and detect. Best of all, the brains of zebrafish are a lot like the brains of humans — only simpler.

So, instead of dosing mice and observing behaviors, scientists can use sophisticated imaging equipment to see what’s happening in the brain of a cannabis-dosed zebrafish in real time. This is a game changer for research analysis. It eliminates the worst thing about brain research: the guesswork.

Pairing zebrafish and research could mean a world of difference to our understanding of how cannabis affects the brain.

Zebrafish and Research for Cannabis

When it comes to cannabis, one of the biggest questions that science has yet to answer is one of the simplest: Which components most impact the effects of cannabis?

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In general terms, the answer is clear. Basically, we know that THC affects the brain and the hold it has on the body. Further, we know it can lead to momentarily worse memory, or happier moods. Lastly, we understand how CBD interacts with the endocannabinoid system to produce, for example, anti-inflammatory or relaxing effects.

But, we don’t know the complete story of how THC and CBD work together. Nor do we know other cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids may change how the active ingredients function together.

This where zebrafish, and the research they aid, come in.

zebrafish and research represented by zebrafish scientist looking into microscope

Zebrafish And Research Studies

Because of their unique skulls and skin, zebrafish are on the cutting-edge of neuroscience research. For example, they’ve already been used in serious research papers that have uncovered how sleep repairs DNA damage.

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In the study, the researchers monitored chromosome movement within the brains of zebrafish that were asleep. They found a few amazing things. Firstly, they discovered that chromosomes move twice as much during sleep as during waking hours. Second, they discovered that during sleep, the body works on repairing the damage to DNA that accumulates throughout the day.

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The researchers speculate that this is why so many neurodegenerative diseases include sleeplessness. If the body doesn’t get enough rest, it doesn’t repair DNA in the brain, which leads to ever-increasing problems. And now, the same team of Israeli researchers responsible for cracking our understanding of sleep are gearing up for zebrafish research on cannabis.

How Sleeping Fish Helps Cannabis

A fish brain carries out all the same primary functions of a human brain. But, it performs them on a smaller, and simpler, scale.

Most important to cannabis research, zebrafish have a region in their brains that is a lot like the human hippocampus in both structure and neurotransmission. By studying how these simpler brains are affected by cannabis, researchers could provide valuable insights into how human gray matter functions when under the influence.

Beyond that, however, cannabis companies and farmers could make good use of zebrafish and research. Because the zebrafish is so easy to study, it’s fast and simple to get an accurate assessment of how different strains affect consumers.

If a company wants to make a sleep-inducing chemovar, they can tinker around with zebrafish models to see just how differently each test crop affects the brain. This could help us better understand the entourage effect, as companies will soon be able to see how strains with similar THC and CBD content, but different terpene profiles affect brain function.

It could open up whole avenues of very specific strain cultivation. It could also lead to the creation of varieties that are scientifically calibrated to help with mood disorders, intense pain, or nausea.

zebrafish and research represented by zebrafish embryos under scan

Zebrafish embroyos

What Zebrafish Could do for Cannabis Research 

Zebrafish and research could be the key to unlocking the power cannabis holds of diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and PTSD. It could also help explain what exactly THC and CBD do to the brain. Currently, it’s clear that cannabinoids do something important to neural pathways. We know, for instance, that CBD interacts directly with the hippocampus, the brain’s memory powerhouse. But, exactly what happens to PTSD patients who recover through the consumption of cannabis? We don’t have the full information yet.

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We just know that, through a combination of its anti-inflammatory and memory-specific powers, cannabis is able to help some PTSD sufferers. Science has determined that people with PTSD often have a pre-existing endocannabinoid deficiency that cannabis may help correct or at least make up for.

The starting point might be zebrafish and research, but the ending could be providing relief to people who are hurting.

Author avatar

Matt Weeks

A writer living and working in Athens, GA, Matt's work has appeared in various newspapers, books, magazines and online publications over the last 15 years. When he's not writing, he hosts bar trivia, plays in local bands, and makes a mean guacamole. He holds an undergraduate degree in journalism and a master's degree in organizational theory. His favorite movie is "Fletch."