Following the horrific school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, last week, Fox News host Laura Ingraham blithely blamed the perpetrator’s “psychotic behavior” on his alleged marijuana use. Then she claimed without evidence that cannabis legalization is having “violent consequences” for “an entire generation of Americans.”
For all the wrong reasons, Ingraham is right about one thing: cannabis can have a profound influence on social behavior. Depending on dose, strain, and other factors, it may induce a range of emotions and behaviors: withdrawn introspection and peaceful calm, playfulness and joy, and sometimes anxiety or irritability.
In any case, these effects are mediated largely by the cannabinoid receptors, in particular CB1, the prime target of psychoactive THC. And if CB1 is involved, it follows that the broader endocannabinoid system – including the endogenous cannabinoids anandamide and 2-AG, which also bind to CB1, and the enzymes that create and degrade them – must play an important role in modulating human social behavior.
But Ingraham’s rant was more unhinged scapegoating than sound science. In fact, a newly published study suggests that recent cannabis use is associated with prosocial and “humanitarian” behaviors, greater empathy and agreeableness, and greater fairness and harmlessness. Below, read more about it and two other recent studies exploring the link between cannabis, the endocannabinoid system (ECS), and social behavior.
Cannabis Consumption Boosts Empathy
Noting that the existing scientific literature around cannabis use is generally focused on health risks or disease treatment, researchers with the University of New Mexico set out to investigate something different: associations with prosocial behavior among otherwise healthy people.
Their study, whose findings were published in May 2022 in the journal Scientific Reports,1 consisted of two basic parts: 1) testing for THC in the urine of 146 healthy university students between the ages of 18 and 25; and 2) administering participants a series of seven questionnaires.
Nearly half of participants tested positive for THC. For the analysis, these individuals were grouped as “users,” and the others as “non-users.” Correlating these two categories with responses to the questionnaires, the researchers found that cannabis users scored higher on “prosocial behaviors,” “moral fairness,” “moral harmlessness,” and “empathy quotient,” but lower on “ingroup loyalty.” Among females, cannabis users scored higher than non-users on “aggression.” But among males, users scored higher than non-users on “agreeableness.”
Despite the obvious ability of cannabis to influence mood and behavior during acute intoxication, it’s important to note that these findings are not causal, and do not imply that cannabis use itself is the source of these differences. It’s also possible that people with these traits are more likely to use cannabis, or that a different variable or set of variables contributes to both cannabis use and prosocial behavior.
Still, one final finding does seem to indicate that cannabis itself may be a key factor behind some of these more favorable traits. Among users of both sexes, the researchers observed linear associations between recency of last cannabis use and “prosocial behaviors,” “empathy quotient,” “moral harmlessness,” “moral fairness,” and “agreeableness.”
“The findings suggest cannabis usage is associated with an increased sense of pro-sociality and prioritization of humanitarian behaviors that declines with time following cannabis consumption,” the authors conclude.
Modulating of Social Behavior in Animals
A second recent paper gets a bit more mechanistic while reviewing evidence from animal studies. Writing in the journal Neuroscience & Behavioral Reviews,2 researchers at the University of Toronto describe analyzing and synthesizing 80 previous studies – one of which used capuchin monkeys, and the rest rats, mice, hamsters, or gerbils – to draw a few key conclusions.
First and foremost, they confirm that in these animals, endocannabinoid “tone,” a broad measure of ECS function, does indeed play a role in various social behaviors and interactions, particularly play – an effect that may be moderated by sex and age. Beyond this, the results of the review are a bit more ambiguous. That’s not surprising giving the complexity of both ECS function and social behavior.
But in a nutshell, the authors write, “studies most consistently found that direct cannabinoid receptor agonism” – achieved through experimental administration of a range of potent synthetic cannabinoids – “decreased social behaviors in animals, while indirect [receptor] activation via enzyme inhibition or gene-knockout increased social behaviors.”
As for extensions to human social behavior and, more specifically, the treatment of psychiatric disorders, the authors encourage caution. “The translation into clinical research is not obvious or straightforward,” they write, and the findings may be most useful in informing the design of future studies in human populations.
The results of the review suggest that indirect upregulation of cannabinoid receptor activity “could be interesting for translation into clinical evaluation and research.” Numerous preclinical studies have probed the pharmaceutical inhibition of the endocannabinoid-degrading enzymes FAAH and MAGL, but this approach to ECS alteration to date has seen limited success in a clinical context.
As the authors also note, “some research has suggested cannabis might provide some symptomatic relief for conditions involving impaired social behavior.” Substantial anecdotal evidence and a small but growing body of clinical findings highlight the potential of cannabis-derived CBD as a treatment for anxiety and other mood disorders. CBD is not a direct agonist of cannabinoid receptors but indirectly “activates” them by delaying endocannabinoid reuptake.
ECS in Social Anxiety
A review article published in the January 2022 issue of the Brazilian Journal of Psychiatry3 examined the role of the ECS in social anxiety disorder. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, social anxiety disorder is distinguished from everyday nervousness or shyness by “an intense, persistent fear of being watched and judged by others.” Risk may be genetic, and treatment generally consists of psychotherapy, group support, and/or medication including benzodiazepines, or “benzos,” and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs.
But as the authors of the recent review argue, there may also be a role for drugs, including FAAH-inhibitors, that target the endocannabinoid system due to its involvement in the regulation of stress, anxiety, and social behavior, and its interactions with the neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine and the hormone oxytocin. A double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled “proof of concept study” in 2020 involving 149 social anxiety disorder patients found that a FAAH-inhibiting compound was well tolerated and for some elicited a significant reduction in anxiety.4
Research remains in the very early stages, yet “overall, the ECS presents as a potential biological pathway in the pathophysiology of social anxiety disorder and as promising avenue for developing novel therapeutic approaches,” the authors conclude.
Nate Seltenrich, an independent science journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area, covers a wide range of subjects including environmental health, neuroscience, and pharmacology.
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