The entourage effect means that the active ingredient is not the whole experience. This is a classic case of a theory that can’t be tested scientifically. Take coffee for example. Very few people use caffeine tablets in the morning. They would rather drink bad coffee than swallow a tasteless pill. That may seem irrational, but most coffee drinkers will tell you that the uplift begins before the first sip, when the aroma hits the olfactories. The feeling is in the experience as a whole, and while the active ingredient plays a part in that experience, if you’ve had a great cup of coffee before, you’ll get a good feeling from the memory inspired by a lesser cup later on.
The feeling you get from taking drugs, whether coffee, beer or bud, is different every time. If you went to the same coffee shop every day, and they used the same roaster and the same supplier and beans from the same plantation every day, you would still have a different feeling after the cup every day. A scientific study of the feeling you get from coffee would average out as something very similar to taking a caffeine pill every morning, because when you average out the different ups, downs and ripples, the simple stimulation is all that is left. It is exactly like the statistical mechanics of an ideal gas. Every molecule is moving at a different speed, but on average, the speed is constant and identical to its blackbody radiation. The basic assumption of statistical mechanics, without which entropy makes no sense, is that every microscopic constituent is interchangeable. This simply isn’t possible for organic plant material. No two batches of beer are identical, no two wine vintages are identical, and no two pots of coffee are identical. Not only that, but oxidization changes the flavor and chemistry of coffee and wine from one minute to the next. Bees prefer fake flowers with the “natural” amount of caffeine or nicotine to fake flowers with too much or too little, so the way the dose is received matters as well:
“The researchers used artificial flowers in a tightly-monitored flight arena in the laboratory to mimic how flowering plants use animals as pollen carriers and reward pollinators with sugars found in floral nectar.
30 bees were allowed to forage on two types of types of flowers – one which contained a sugar solution and was blue in colour. The second type of artificial flower was purple in colour and had different concentrations of nicotine. Another 30 were tested with the two flower colours having the opposite contents.
The experiment was repeated with the nicotine-laced flowers having three different concentrations of nicotine – two of which were found within the natural range and another that was much higher. Only the unnaturally high concentration of nicotine deterred the bees from foraging for nectar.
“Here we find that bees not only remember such flowers better, but even keep coming back for more when these flowers are demonstrably poorer options, as if they were truly hooked on these flowers.”
By Michael Le Page
In some cultures, it’s traditional for elders to smoke grass, a practice said to help them pass on tribal knowledge. It turns out that they might just be onto something.
Teenagers who toke perform less well on memory and attention tasks while under the influence. But low doses of the active ingredient in cannabis, THC, might have the opposite effect on the elderly, reversing brain ageing and restoring learning and memory – at least according to studies of mice.
“We repeated these experiments many times,” says team leader Andreas Zimmer at the University of Bonn, Germany. “It’s a very robust and profound effect.”
Zimmer’s team has been studying the mammalian endocannabinoid system, which is involved in balancing out our bodies’ response to stress. THC affects us by mimicking similar molecules in this system, calming us down.
The researchers discovered that mice with genetic mutations that stop this endocannabinoid system from working properly age faster than normal mice, and show more cognitive decline. This made Zimmer wonder if stimulating the endocannabinoid system in elderly mice might have the opposite effect.
To find out, the team gave young (2-month-old), middle-aged (12-month-old) and elderly (18-month-old) mice a steady dose of THC. The amount they received was too small to give them psychoactive effects.
After a month, the team tested the mice’s ability to perform cognitive tasks, such as finding their way around mazes, or recognising other individuals.
In the control groups, which received no THC, the young mice performed far better than the middle-aged and elderly mice. But the middle-aged and elderly mice who had been given THC performed as well as the young mice in the control group.
Further studies showed that THC boosted the number of connections between brain cells in the hippocampus, which is involved in memory formation. “It’s a quite striking finding,” says Zimmer.
But THC seemed to have the opposite effect in young mice: when they were given THC, their performance in some tasks declined.
Young people also perform worse in learning and memory tests in the hours and days after smoking cannabis, but a joint delivers far higher doses than the mice received. Claims that heavy marijuana use can permanently impair cognition are disputed.
Zimmer thinks his findings show that both too much and too little stimulation is harmful. The endocannabinoid system is most active in young mice (and people), so extra THC may overstimulate it. In older mice, by contrast, endocannabinoid activity declines, so a little THC restores it to optimum levels.
The team’s findings aren’t that surprising, says neuropsychopharmacologist David Nutt of Imperial College London. Animal studies have shown that the cannabinoids the body produces itself can have beneficial effects on the brain. And Nutt and his colleagues have also found that THC use protects alcoholics from alcohol-induced brain damage.
Zimmer’s team is now planning human trials to find out whether older people can benefit from low doses of THC too and, if so, from what age it is beneficial. “There is no formula to translate mouse months into human years,” Zimmer says.
The trials will use purified THC rather than weed so the dosage can be precisely controlled. It might be administered as a mouth spray, for example.
Even if the trials get similar results, it is unlikely that doctors will start prescribing spliffs to older people. “The dosing is important,” Zimmer says. “Smoking marijuana is very different.”